‘Disaster law’ faces criticism
The complex and poorly understood disaster law could affect up to nearly half the country's property.
By Erisa Dautaj Şenerdem for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 05/06/12
A newly approved law on the transformation of regions that are exposed to natural disaster risks, the so-called disaster law, has raised concerns that it could violate fundamental rights and will be used to gentrify neighbourhoods at the expense of residents.
Residents of the district of Fener (above) are concerned the disaster law will target their neighbourhood first. [Reuters]
Many buildings in Turkey would collapse in an earthquake like that which occurred in Ercis on October 29, 2011. [Reuters]
Of Turkey's total housing stock of 20 million buildings, nearly 40% is exposed to the risk of natural disasters. [Reuters]
The law, prepared by Turkey's Ministry for Environment and Urban Planning, was approved by parliament on May 16th. It gives the ministry authority to decide whether to demolish individual buildings or whole blocks that are qualified as "exposed to natural risks."
According to the ministry, 40% of Turkey's total housing stock of about 20 million buildings is in very bad condition and will probably be qualified as "exposed to natural disasters."
Committees comprised of seven members -- four experts from academia and three representatives of the ministry -- will decide whether buildings are qualified as "risky." The ministry will ask for the demolition of houses that are both risky and located in "risky areas" within 60 days after notifying the owners. If property owners do not obey, a second 60-day time period will be provided, after which civilian authorities will destroy the buildings.
In some cases, owners of buildings outside of risky areas will be provided with loans to demolish, re-build or strengthen the structure.
For buildings owned by more than one person, approval by two thirds of the building's owners will be enough to decide on demolition. The property of one third or less of owners who do not agree to demolish the building will be then put to auction to owners who agreed to the demolition and if the latter does not buy the property, it will be bought by the state. Ownership would transfer to the Treasury.
"This is unacceptable. It is openly bullying," Taylan Tanay, the chairman of the Contemporary Lawyers Association, told SES Türkiye. The law violates the constitutional right to life and shelter in a healthy and secure way, he added.
However, the Minister for Environment and Urban Planning, Erdogan Bayraktar, told SES Türkiye that "As the essence of the law is to ensure the most important human right, 'the right to life,' violation of human rights is out of discussion: the law rather contributes to guaranteeing the right to life."
The ministry will compensate the minority of co-owners who refuse demolition. Thus, they will suffer no damage, which means no violations of the constitution, Bayraktar explained.
However, Tanay argues that despite the fact that it is named the "disaster" law, it aims to facilitate state policies regarding urban transformation, rather than protecting citizens against any natural disaster risk.
According to him, the law has served to remove all legal impediments for the implementation of gentrification projects.
The law also prevents citizens from applying to a court to halt the implementation of the decision to demolish taken by the ministry.
"The right of objection and to fair trial is taken from citizens' hands," Tanay said, adding that he believed the whole process violates the constitution and related international conventions to which Turkey is a party.
The state will not re-build citizens' houses once demolished. This will be left to the owners themselves, the private sector or the Housing Development Administration (TOKI).
Importantly, evaluation of buildings regarding their exposure to disaster risks will be made either on individual houses or in blocks of houses located in a certain area.
"We expect areas that are more profitable economically will be the primary focus [during implementation]," Akif Burak Atlar, Istanbul Branch Secretary of the City Planners’ Chamber, told SES Türkiye.
Firms will probably prefer to work on projects that involve whole housing blocks, rather than on individual house projects, given that profits increase as the area subject to construction increases, Atlar said.
But not everyone favours that approach. "We want [gentrification projects in the framework of this law] to be implemented on the basis of individual rather than whole housing blocks," Ibrahim Guntekin, the chairman of the Association for the Protection of Rights and Social Solidarity of Property Owners and Tenants of Fener, Balat and Ayvansaray (FEBAYDER), told SES Türkiye.
The residents in Istanbul's quarters of Fener, Balat and Ayvansaray -- a historic run-down area with potentially high value property within the old city walls -- were worried they would be the first to be subjected to implementation of the "disaster" law, Guntekin said.
Hayati Ogrencik, a resident in the Fener quarter and member of FEBAYDER’s Executive Board, argues that the Van earthquake has served as a legal justification for the government to implement the law.
Ogrencik, who has been locked in a legal struggle regarding the restoration of his house for three years, said the municipality had already selected the construction firm that would implement an urban transformation project across his area, through an auction, without even informing residents of the project.
"I found out about this only when I filed a request to the municipality to renovate my own house," he said, adding that he had not been allowed to do so, as his house was already part of a project he was not aware of.
The law has been criticised by experts and NGOs since the preparation of its draft following the Van earthquake, especially for providing the necessary legal background for maximising profits of private construction firms.
"Human rights are being violated for the sake of providing monopolies rent," Tanay said.