Turkey's Push For Post-Earthquake Reconstruction Puts Speed Over Housing Quality

Author: Fatma Ozdogan

(MENAFN- The Conversation) It has been a year since two powerful earthquakes , magnitude 7.8 and 7.5, devastated parts of southeastern Turkey and northern Syria. The Feb. 6, 2023 earthquakes destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings, killed almost 60,000 people and left more than 1.5 million homeless .

One year later, the region is still recovering from its most devastating disaster in recent history. And significant changes are required in the way the reconstruction is taking place.

In Turkey, the disaster exposed persistent social inequality, widespread poverty, housing shortages and other systemic problems. The need to repair infrastructure and rebuild hundreds of thousands of homes presents a unique opportunity for transformative change. However, the Turkish government's approach to disaster recovery poses challenges for that change.

Politics of post-disaster action

The government of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has maintained existing policies and housing strategies, and this creates an obstacle to redressing the social and environmental injustices that led to the disaster.

For decades, the Turkish government has maintained a housing and reconstruction strategy that concentrates decision-making power in the central government and prioritizes speed and quantity over quality.

This year, the government expanded the capacity of the Ministry of the Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change (MEUPCC) to expropriate land. The Ministry has expropriated over 207 hectares of land in the southern province of Hatay alone . More expropriations are expected in other provinces.

Many parts of Turkey's Hatay province suffered significant damage during the earthquake. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Pool Photo via AP)

Similar to previous reconstruction processes in the country, the strategy has been to facilitate new urban development in city outskirts and remote locations. Scholars have noted , however, that this approach increases urban sprawl, exacerbates fragmentation and tends to neglect the historical significance of city centres, as well as the value of agricultural land and rural practices.

Prioritizing speedy construction over housing quality perpetuates social problems and increases environmental and economic costs in the long term.

Read more: Buildings left standing in Turkey offer design guidance for future earthquake-resilient construction

Unequal access

This is pretty much the same strategy that was implemented after the 1999 Marmara Earthquake , the earthquakes in Van (2011), Elazığ (2020), and İzmir (2020) and the 2021 Western Black Sea floods .

There are legal mechanisms in the country to conduct in-situ reconstruction and more careful urban transformation. However, the government keeps developing suburban areas because it is the easiest and fastest way to show that action is being taken .

Yet, these new homes are not accessible to all.

Under the law only owners of moderately or severely damaged homes can access zero-interest loans for purchasing new units. This restricts the number of people eligible for post-disaster housing. In addition, many new settlements are located far from jobs, schools, services and other facilities.

Alternatives do exist to achieve quality, but they receive little attention from Erdoğan's government.

Co-operative housing in Turkey

Construction co-ops have existed in Turkey since the 1930s . At the height of their popularity in 1988, co-operatives accounted for 35 per cent of total housing production. But political negligence, and the absence of a robust legal framework, have hindered the co-op movement and eroded public trust in community-based co-operatives. Today, co-operatives represent less than 0.1 per cent of housing production.

After the 1999 Marmara earthquake, a group of tenants, frustrated by their exclusion from government programs, formed a housing co-operative in Düzce . Through participatory design, and community-driven construction, the co-op provided housing for 234 low-income families.

New apartments for earthquake survivors under construction in Kilis, southeastern Turkey. (Republic of Turkey Ministry of Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change)

After the 2020 İzmir earthquake owners of moderately damaged houses were not eligible for financial support. About 30 families decided to create a similar version of the Düzce housing co-operative. With collaboration from the municipality, they established a co-operative construction project, Halk Konut . This co-op allowed earthquake-affected residents to lead both design and construction, while receiving technical and legal expertise from local authorities.

The municipality established a new office where co-operative members could work closely with municipal employees and helped Halk Konut members in negotiations with contractors. Although co-op members made the ultimate decisions, the office supervised both planning and construction activities.

The municipality also granted permission for building two additional floors. By selling the units in these two floors, the co-op received additional funds that made the operation economically feasible.

After construction is completed, co-ops are often dissolved. But during the process, they create a platform for collective discussions about ways to improve neighbourhoods, increase energy-efficiency and integrate public space and green areas. Co-ops also empower earthquake survivors by actively involving them in construction and design, and ensure affordability, sustainability, and community development.

One co-op member we interviewed said:“We didn't know our neighbours before we initiated the co-operative effort. But now, we design and build our homes together and try to make our neighbourhood more liveable. Once the building is completed, we will organize workshops on civil rights, disasters, and climate change. We now collaborate with local universities, professional associations, and NGOs.”

Co-ops, however, do face several obstacles. Creating one is a long process that requires significant engagement. Despite efforts to reduce costs and share expenses, financing remains the most significant challenge, especially for retired people and others with low incomes. Developing trust and consensus among co-op members can also be difficult. Tensions and conflicts sometimes emerge in a process that depends on mutual trust and engagement.

The way forward

With a focus on centralized provision of turnkey projects since 1999, creation of new co-operatives has dramatically decreased. Yet, the co-op model, with its democratic, inclusive, and restorative nature, holds the potential to improve reconstruction strategies in Turkey. It offers an empowering tool for disaster victims based on active participation on decisions about their own future.

Embracing alternative reconstruction methods like co-operative housing is paramount for a resilient future in Turkey. But the model needs to be backed by a comprehensive legal framework, including obligations for contractors to complete projects within the agreed time-frame and ensuring the protection of homeowners' rights.

The Turkish government must decide whether to maintain outdated strategies or embrace alternative models. It is time to place better strategies at the forefront, steering towards a future where communities actively participate in shaping cities. Otherwise, Turkey will continue to build disconnected settlements with a significant social, financial and environmental cost.

The Conversation


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