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I live, I breathe. NYC, October 2012. Photo by Bikem Ekberzade

I live, I breathe. NYC, 2012. Photo by Bikem Ekberzade

For lack of a better thing to do on a late Saturday night, I turned on the TV and let myself get sucked into the concrete and metal tiers of Gotham City. As I took in the timeless, futuristic landscape of an urban setting, I thought how the urban sprawl around me was changing: the small neighbourhood grocery disappearing into a mega-mart and the cute apartments being engulfed by larger, taller buildings. In the city I call home, the sense of community had diminished radically in the past years. Sunlight now comes into apartments if the surrounding buildings are not too tall to block it. Patches of lawn and small gardens are a luxury for the rich to enjoy – such as in Gotham City, where Bruce Wayne can enjoy a large British style mansion with a lavish garden – whereas the average Joe has to make do with a meager pay in a mediocre job, living off frozen food (handpicked in a greenhouse, shrink-wrapped and shipped from a country whose name Joe can possibly not even pronounce in refrigerated units) in his small and sterile cubicle he calls home.

Is this the life we want? Regardless of what your answer, this is more and more where we are headed. We, of course is a rhetoric referral, as it will most likely be our grandchildren who will live in a world where standing bare feet on a patch of grass enjoying a beautiful sunset will be something only for the privileged. Still, although “the future” is far away, and something for the next generation to worry about, I see a fast changing landscape around me which I find quiet disturbing.

Back in the 1990s, working for the Boston Phoenix as a photographer, I had worked on a story about single mothers’ in the grip of poverty, fighting off drug addiction. The series of interviews had later taken me to “the squatters” around Boylston, a group of young hippies and the homeless, claiming empty apartments in old, derelict brownstones for lack of a place they could call home. Their claim was just: we do not have a roof over our heads, and these spaces are empty, so this is where we will lay our hats. The landlords were furious! They wanted the buildings torn down and turned into luxury apartment flats. If I remember correctly a serious war was being fought which drew in all forms of bureaucracy from the mayor to the governor.

I never found out what became of the squatters as I moved out of Boston, and in a few years moved away half way around the world. However since those Boston days human habitats have always been of interest. From the kutu in Ethiopia, to the nomad’s tent; from arid fields in Southern Turkey – where the legend goes, if you stick a dry branch into the dark brown earth it will sprout – taken over by contractors to build fenced communities on, to a lone concrete structure in the Sahel, empty as the inhabitants choose to sleep outside on the verandah, since the building is not properly acclimatized (but a remnant of old colonial order); from the steel construction apartment buildings in a major earthquake zone such as Iran, to the bedouin like short brown buildings of neighbouring Iraq.

Lately, urbanization and with it the out of control concrete sprawls are bugging me more than ever. I find myself irritated each time I see an old apartment building being torn down, with it the memories, stories of many families lost, to make way for modern condos. It may be the timing that I am more and more irritated with, the hasty erasure of the old to make room for the new, as recently a new law passed in Turkey – a decade after a devastating earthquake shook the Marmara basin, addressing the problems that arose then, addressing them a decade and one more devastating earthquake too late, and addressing them inappropriately. “Why now?” one may ask. The answer is multi-fold. I will offer two of the plausible explanations here:

  • Turkey is trying desperately to keep its economy afloat, as neighbouring countries in Europe are folding. On the eve of its credit rating upped by international evaluators, the country needs to portray positive growth for the 2013 fiscal year, and the construction industry, being so ruthless, is the safest bet to achieve that positive growth through. So an almost free rein to the municipalities to come up with a “city plan” in their respective regions which will then employ contractors and construction companies to play that plan out across the country will stir the economy into action. Low interest rates will help the companies flourish. The mega giants and the friendly neighbourhood foxy construction firm which couldnt in the past take that park over there because it was not legally allowed, or that old little building in the corner, because an old lady who lived in it objected, now have free reign over all. Human rights? Well, in the light of “right to life” which the law claims it addresses, and as property rights are only secondary to a person’s right to live (safely and securely) then the law upholds the ground it covers, justifying its breach of your right as a human being to live in a dignified manner (with our hard-earned money safely invested in a property for the rainy day.) So, more mediocre work for a meager pay for the average Joe, so he can pay his hospital bills in the future when he gets a deadly disease because of the unhealthy life he was left with no option but to live. My argument then: is this not a long-term breach of human rights?
The height of humanity. Brookly Heights, NY, 2012. Photo by Bikem Ekberzade

The height of humanity. Brookly Heights, NY, 2012. Photo by Bikem Ekberzade

All right, so we need more detail…

To make room for the current law, or better yet to make it more profitable, first another one was passed. It allowed “forest areas which have lost their quality” due to deforestation or literal “human invasion” were opened up for construction permits and were/are being auctioned off. So the cities and their perimeters are becoming less green, more, well, concrete.

Now all conditions were set to bring on the law, commonly referred to as the “natural disaster law” (more hefty title is the law which permits reconstruction of areas under threat of natural disasters.) According to the new law, as long as one tenant from an apartment complex initiates an “analysis” to the strength/health of their building, which will be determined by a group of experts appointed by a select number of universities and/or the municipality, the process will start. Once deemed uninhabitable due to age, concrete quality etc. the building will be torn down and a new one, a taller one, will be erected. Since many people will not be able to afford the construction costs (although low credit is being facilitated, from which mainly the contractor will benefit) a construction firm will take over. The hired construction company will draw a new architectural plan which will shrink the size of the original flats, making room for new flats which in turn it can sell and enjoy the profits once the building is finished.

Foreseeing such a law (which ended up being little less than an answer to their wildest dreams) the construction firms had been acquiring flats in old buildings for quiet sometime. Once in the building, now as legal tenants, they themselves can initiate a probe into the building’s health, which the local municipalities advise will come out negative for buildings older than 50 years.

A face lift? Or cashing in profits? Istanbul 2012. Photo by Bikem Ekberzade.

A face lift? Or cashing in profits? Istanbul 2012. Photo by Bikem Ekberzade.

You may read all this and say: “What are you crying wolf about, at the end of the day the tenant will have a brand new apartment without spending a penny out of their own pocket.” Well, the law has major shortcomings. Most of them are the gray areas that are not clarified or well detailed to eliminate room for conflict. One of these gray areas is the exact match of property values when a building is renewed. The law does not in full give a guarantee to the original owners that what they will get in the end will match the property value of what they originally have.

In case of conflict even, by openly invoking the “right to live” which naturally overrules all other rights, the law gives no time window to resolve the conflicts – meaning, even if you object and go to court, because of the “emergency” nature of the law, the process will tick forward. In the end, even if you win your case – which, in many cases will be unlikely, as hardly any judge would endanger his status for the right of an ordinary citizen –  you will only get your costs for trial remedied. Lawyers are expensive in Turkey, and the court cases often favor the strong, unless they are heavily watchdogged by the media.

Justice, or else? The new Hall of Justice built in Istanbul. 2012. Photo by Bikem Ekberzade

Justice, or else? The new “Hall of Justice” built in Istanbul. Its impressive size was criticized by many. Photo by Bikem Ekberzade

One example: You own an entry-level flat. The building is finished and now you are floor #1. There is a brand new store underneath you, which now the contractor owns, and possibly sells for a hefty sum. However the entrance-level apartment with access to a small garden was what you had originally saw, counted your money and invested in for a rainy day. Now, years later you end up with a slice of your savings carved out and handed to a construction firm, and through it to several tiers of the government (credit payback with interest, increased landmass which they can then tax) If you say you do not like the current plan, you want what you originally invested, the law says: if you are the minority among the rest of the tenants, then after your flat being offered to other tenants for purchase, if they do not/can not buy it, the government will step in and buy your share and while paying you an incompetitive sum, “nationalize” your flat.

Let me give you another scenario (one that is currently being played out in one of the tightest and poorest neighbourhoods in Istanbul): you own 4 small flats in an apartment building, but your land is not big enough for a constructor to profit from it by rebuilding. He can only build and make room for himself if he slashes your space. There is no way, credit/no credit, for you to construct the building by your own means. You can barely support your family. Now all of a sudden, with the current law, your building will be torn down and you will be given an equivalent of 2 flats (meaning your new total area will equal to half of its original size. The rest will be gulped down by the contractor.) So now, your extended family who moved into the city in hopes for a better life (which they found none, only an ongoing struggle to stay alive) will have no roof over their heads. They will be practically homeless. The building is in bad shape, yes, and it may even need to be torn down and rebuilt, but if a contractor steps in, he will not do it for free. So you cannot afford a contractor, nor you want to lose the building. Your other option is to sell your share to the government. Who in turn will bring in their construction company (TOKI – a construction giant which has been found and has since prospered under the protective wing of the government.) TOKI works much like any other construction firm. They will take their share, and at the end of the day you will be left with either a small housing unit, much smaller than what you originally invested in, both size and value wise, or if you cannot agree on the architectural layout and the size of the flat you will be left with, then you will sell your share to the government, not at market value, but at the rate foreseen by the government for that specific area (which is often less than the market rate.) Once the building is finished and you are no longer in the picture, TOKI will in turn sell the flats at market value.

A nifty little profit-making cycle, no? And now, once again, do you understand how a breach of your property rights can end up as a violation of human rights? Your basic right to live, through impoverishing you is being violated. And it is all done legally.

Karakoy, Istanbul, 2012. Photo by Bikem Ekberzade

Karakoy, Istanbul, 2012. Photo by Bikem Ekberzade

Could there not have been a requirement in this new law which would foresee areas of conflict and protect the owners rights? Yes, of course. All it needed was a clause stating that “the original property rights of the landowners will be respected.” You have a basement flat? you get a basement flat. You have 4 flats? you get your 4 flats. Profits? Well such a law would then be a true emergency law, addressing the threats of living in an earthquake zone – unlike the current law, with disregard to property ownership, on the surface upholding a person’s right to life while in the shadows catering to a sum of profits by construction firms.

The reason why such an adjustment was not made, brings me to the second explanation to the question of “why now”:

  • The government needs money. The property taxes which the individual pays are no longer enough in the world in which we live in, where countries are lined up for bankruptcy. With a drastic drop in interest rates, people are trying to hold onto their hard-earned money by investing in hard assets such as property. Once invested, they think their money is safe, and it should be. Instead the government is coming with a new law, and converting your hard-earned money in form of property it is by cutting a slice from your earnings and feeding it to the construction firms – who in turn are paying it back to the government as taxes and contribution towards the growth numbers in the economy.

And at the end of the day, the average Joe will go back to work, to earn, to save, so one day the local and national actors in the government can come over and say “pay-day” Pretty soon (if not already) the garden and that patch of grass to stand on will be a novelty only for the rich. And the poor? Well, now. Stop asking so many questions…

I prefer... DUMBO, NY, 2012. Photo by Bikem Ekberzade

I prefer… DUMBO, NY, 2012. Photo by Bikem Ekberzade

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