Displaced Turks, Promised New Homes, Can Only Protest on an Empty Lot

The economy has stalled Turkey’s grand renewal plans for cities like Istanbul. Residents whose properties were razed are tired of waiting.

Sept. 30, 2018
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Residents of Istanbul whose homes were demolished for a redevelopment project have occupied an empty building site, demanding that their new block be built.CreditDanielle Villasana for The New York Times

ISTANBUL — A group of residents have been protesting for more than 70 days at an empty building site in eastern Istanbul.

They sit on plastic chairs beside a couple of tents. New high-rise buildings surround them, but stagnant water has pooled on this site, and weeds sprout from the mounds of earth.

Around 300 homes were demolished as part of an urban development program in the district of Fikirtepe on Istanbul’s increasingly fashionable Asian shore. The families have been living in rented accommodations until their residential block is built.

“It was a beautiful neighborhood,” said Kadriye Akguzel, who owned three apartments here with her son. “Everyone had the key to their neighbor’s house.”

The protest, in Istanbul's Fikirtepe district, is part of a wave as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has put on an emphasis on construction. CreditDanielle Villasana for The New York Times

But construction has stalled as Turkey’s economy has faltered. The private developers who were granted the license for this bloc of 85 landowners have halted construction over money disputes.

Urban transformation has been one of the much-vaunted achievements of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 16 years in power. Whole sections of Istanbul, and many other cities, have been pulled down to be replaced with modern office buildings and homes. The redevelopment has spurred rapid economic growth in Turkey, generating employment and providing housing for Mr. Erdogan’s voter base.

Yet protests have swelled over Mr. Erdogan’s emphasis on construction and growth at any cost. The construction boom, largely built on foreign credit, has brought wealth to a whole swath of construction firms. But it has also saddled the country with heavy private-sector debt that is more difficult to pay as the Turkish lira falls. Turkish banks have borrowed $186 billion, much of it denominated in American dollars. Some $77 billion will need refinancing in the next 12 months, according to Moody’s Investors Service.

Many construction projects have ground to a halt in recent months as credit evaporates amid soaring inflation and the sliding lira. In Fikirtepe, skeletons of half-finished tower blocks outnumber the glossy new apartment buildings. Cranes stand idle, and families are still living in crumbling houses awaiting demolition. Property firms are offering discounted deals to encourage sales as two million new apartments remain unsold around the country.

Engin Akguzel, a spokesman for the protesters, showing a picture of his house, which was on the site.CreditDanielle Villasana for The New York Times “We are not angry with the president,” Mr. Akguzel said. “But I am personally heartbroken.”CreditDanielle Villasana for The New York Times

The Fikirtepe project was an ambitious effort to transform a central working-class district into an upmarket residential area. It was designated a Special Town Planning Area, which allowed contractors to build high-rise apartments.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim presided over the groundbreaking ceremony in 2017. He promised an entirely new city in Fikirtepe of “beautiful, sparkling living spaces.” One block was to be called Brooklyn Dream.

Some residents never wanted to sign up for the plan, which would demolish their homes, said Engin Akguzel, the son of Ms. Akguzel who is a driver and a spokesman for the group of protesters. Under the deal, the company offered to pay for rented accommodations for up to 42 months until they could move into the new apartment building.

The Fikirtepe district was designated a Special Town Planning Area, which allowed contractors to build high-rise apartments.CreditDanielle Villasana for The New York Times

His father, now deceased, built the three apartments in the 1950s. His mother, Ms. Akguzel, lived in one apartment and used the income from the third to supplement her pension. He lived on the ground floor with his family.

The 25 homeowners who had been resisting agreed to join the plan after a new law threatened to take their property for less compensation than the construction company was offering. The bulldozers moved in during the summer of 2016.

A map of the site that the protesters are occupying.CreditDanielle Villasana for The New York Times The bulldozers began their work more than two years ago.CreditDanielle Villasana for The New York Times

The first sign of trouble came a year later, in June 2017, when the developer failed to pay the money for the landowners’ rent.

“We became suspicious,” Mr. Akguzel said. They checked on the developer and found that the company had changed hands. The new registered owner seemed to be a member of the firm’s staff.

“The owner got out of it, and now the man who serves the tea is the owner of the company,” said Yasin Bektas, a resident who runs a local online news site and leads a separate protest group, which has sued the developers.

The original investors have pulled out of the project and are involved in a lawsuit with their contractor. Mahir Sasmaz, the former head of construction for Pana Construction, the main developer, blamed rising costs and an inability to sell apartments for the company’s difficulties.

“The state has the power,” said Erol Torpil, an apartment owner who opposed the project.CreditDanielle Villasana for The New York Times The view from a construction site wall in Fikirtepe.CreditDanielle Villasana for The New York Times

“Costs increased, and the number of flats sold did not reach to the expected numbers,” he said in a telephone interview. “If sales remain at those levels, none of the contractors there will make a profit.”

Lawsuits take years in Turkey, and the families are worried about waiting that long. Most of his group are pensioners and cannot pay their rent, Mr. Akguzel said.

He complained that officials at the ministry that oversees urban planning were unsympathetic even though they had pushed the residents to accept the project in the first place. Officials visited them before the June elections, promising assistance, but have avoided them since, Mr. Akguzel added.

The ministry’s deputy under secretary, Mucahit Demirtas, posted pictures and comments on Twitter promising to work on solutions for the protesters in June.

he wrote after meeting with one of the original investors.

The protesters are demanding that the government step in and ensure the block is built.

“The state has the power,” said Erol Torpil, an insurance adviser, who had opposed the plan from the start because he owned a block of five flats and lived off the rent from them. “The only thing we want is for the houses to be built immediately.”

But the protesters are careful not to criticize the increasingly authoritarian Mr. Erdogan, even if he has promoted the whole urban transformation. Many note that he has often publicly castigated real estate developers and building contractors in the past.

A street in Fikirtepe. A government official posted pictures and comments on Twitter promising to work on solutions for the protesters in June. CreditDanielle Villasana for The New York Times

“We are not angry with the president,” Mr. Akguzel said. “But I am personally heartbroken. I was thinking that the only person who could intervene was the president.”

The attitude of officials since the elections had made his mother lose confidence. “I would lie if I said I still have hope,” she said.

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Carlotta Gall is the Istanbul bureau chief for The New York Times, covering Turkey. @carlottagall Facebook

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