Preparing for Earthquakes, Istanbul Rattles Its Apartment Dwellers

To avoid crumbling buildings in the event of a catastrophe, Turkey is relocating its citizens - but not everyone likes their new digs.

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Sumer, a neighborhood in Istanbul. (Jodi Hilton)

The streets of Sumer, a small Istanbul neighborhood, are narrow and lined with smoky teashops where men play cards all day. Apartments are multi-colored, five-storied, architectural hodgepodges, the type found in most neighborhoods of Istanbul. The only thing that makes Sumer special is that its location makes it ground zero for earthquakes - and controversy surrounding the local government's plans to prepare for them.

Hasan Yildiz is in his late-forties and lives on the top floor of a dull red building. Yildiz grew up in the district of Zeytinburnu, where Sumer is located. His father moved the family to Istanbul and built their home, an illegal self-made structure called a "gecekondu," which started out as one story but soon became two, three, and five floors. Initially such structures were illegal, but in the 1970s and 80s the Turkish government legalized them. So Yildiz's father sold the house and the land to a contractor who built a five-story building. Yildiz's family got the top two floors. His wife's room is next door to that of his two daughters, and there's a small kitchen and giant living room.

Now, the government has determined that Yildiz's apartment is unsafe. His block is part of the first wave of Zeytinburnu's relocation project. He and his family will be moved into a newly built nearby apartment, and their building will be demolished.

Yildiz is a typical neighborhood guy, with a black sweatshirt, imposing posture, and quick, demonstrative speech. He says repeatedly that he supports the urban transformation, but in exchange for his old building and land, the government has promised his family only a one-bedroom apartment.

Yildiz wonders, where will his daughters sleep? "No one is against the renovation, every one would want to live [in the new buildings]. If I went to military service, if I worked for this country, my father worked for the airport for 50 years. We work in this area, so we bought our houses here... why don't we have a right to live in such comfortable places?"

Turkey is in the middle of a debate on how its major metropolis, Istanbul, should prepare for a potential earthquake. In 1999, an earthquake struck 45 miles from Istanbul and killed 17,000 people. Like San Francisco or Los Angeles, newspapers and academics predict that a huge earthquake will hit Istanbul sometime in the near future, destroying some two million of the city's three million apartments. The neighborhood of Sumer and the district it lies in, Zeytinburnu, hug the coastline only 20 miles away from the North Anatolian Faultline, the fault that is expected to rupture and bring on a huge disaster.

Metin Ilkisik is a civil engineer who helped draft Istanbul's first "Earthquake Master Plan" in the early 2000s. After a failed attempt to demolish buildings and construct new structures in Zeytinburnu in early 2000s, Ilkisik says he understood that earthquake preparation is "not really an engineering problem. It's a social problem and economic problem."

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Jodi Hilton

Ilkisik has been working with the government to develop earthquake preparedness plans. He explains that 2,300 buildings in Zeytinburnu would collapse in an earthquake, so, Ilkisik says, it's the government's responsibility to explain to residents that they have to move out.

"Okay, the people will live in more safe buildings, but who will pay for this? The World Bank? The U.S.? Some money from Dubai? Nobody will," Ilkisik explains. "So we have to establish such an economic system so that everybody can earn. Government. Municipality. Constructors. And speculators. All these groups must earn; you must find such a system." Ilkisik pulls a sheaf of papers from his briefcase. The edges of the pages are scrawled with notes and lines bolded in orange. It's the government's new Natural Disaster Law, which passed last year.

According the World Bank, around 95 percent of Turkish land has been marked as "under threat of natural disaster." The law allows the government to survey and draft renovation plans for any neighborhood in Turkey that is under threat of any natural disaster. Once a neighborhood is declared at risk, according to the law, if a majority of owners agree their building should be demolished, the minority cannot object. In addition, the new law makes it illegal for people in an earthquake risk area to protest or go to court to stop the demolition of their homes. Zafer Alsac, the vice mayor of Zeytinburnu, believes this law strengthens the government's power to act and exemplifies democracy.

"Before this law, one person could change the destiny of nine the other people in the building, by simply rejecting a project," Alsac explains, "Most of our buildings are under a great threat of being destroyed in an earthquake, so we cannot put our majority under such a threat, just because a minority doesn't want a change."

Alsac sweeps his hand over a massive wall map of Zeytinburnu, saying the urban transformation will be a boon for the neighborhood. He claims that since 2002, the value of new apartment buildings has tripled. "Our purpose is to increase the price [of the neighborhood] to its real value. In order to achieve this we created special projects," Alsac points to the seacoast, where luxury hotels, apartments and a cruise ship port are planned. "Investors like to invest in Zeytinburnu. We don't create any obstacles, because we have a common aim to increase the value of the neighborhood. And we think the earthquake transformation will skyrocket the price of the neighborhood."

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Jodi Hilton

Alsac says the law also takes into account soon-to-be displaced owners like Yildiz, who will be given an apartment in the new buildings for free. However, the new apartments are 25 percent smaller - imagine chopping off a bedroom. Alsac explains that the new buildings are luxury apartments, "nearly perfect," so if residents want to purchase extra square feet, they will have to pay $126 a square foot. It's really a deal, Alsac explains, since the retail price for a new apartment is $210 a square foot.

But some residents and activists disagree. Ilkay Biber, who was born and grew up in Zeytinburnu, and now is a member of the local parliament for the opposition party. Since 2007, he has been collecting newspaper articles and clippings about urban transformation projects. He explains that 70 percent of families in Sumer live in apartments smaller than 860 square feet, meaning they will get new apartments that are smaller than 645 feet. Most one-room apartments in the new buildings are between 645 to 764 square feet, so most residents will either have to pay $126 more per square foot or accept a much smaller apartment. What's more, 10 percent of residents live in tiny, 538-square-foot apartments, about the size of a big living room. With the government's 25 percent decrease, they will only be allocated 398 square feet in the new buildings. Since there are no new apartments that fit these parameters, Zeytinburnu's poorest residents will have to pay around $30,000 for a new apartment. The average resident makes around $800 a month.

Biber says that ten years of back and forth about the urban transformation has created an atmosphere of panic in the neighborhood. "People dream about going to healthy buildings, earthquake-proof buildings. Imagine you live with that expectation. You want to move to this new building, and you expect it, you expect from state, you expect from local municipality," Biber explains. "And then you start to see over these 10 years, things change all the time. It becomes always more disadvantageous to you, and because of the new law, you cannot even go to the court. So it creates kind of a panic."

Biber pulls a newspaper clipping out of his folders of papers. The headline proclaims, "Zeytinburnu is like Barcelona!" "I ask as a person who was born and grew up here in Zeytinburnu," Biber says slowly, almost in a whisper, "How will the people of Zeytinburnu benefit from this Barcelona, where are we in this Barcelona?"

At the end of February, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan visited Zeytinburnu. The soon-to-be-demolished apartment buildings served as a backdrop to a speech about the upward movement of Turkey and the plans for the country. According to officials, 237 residents have moved into the new apartments, but according to neighborhood gossip, no one is satisfied. Yildiz says he won't move to a smaller apartment. The government has sent out notices in all caps warning residents that they have to come and get their new homes. If they wait too long, the paper warns, they will not be given anything.

The reporting for this story was made possible by the Global Story Project, supported by the Open Society Foundations and directed by the Public Radio Exchange at