The June 12 election triumph of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party not only signaled a political change. It also heralded the start of evictions within the central, working-class Istanbul neighborhood of Tarlabaşı to make way for an ambitious municipal government project to beautify the city.
The sight of the near-daily evictions leaves many of the Tarlabaşı residents who will not or cannot move -- for financial or other reasons -- feeling as if they are teetering on the edge of a precipice.
Standing outside a local courthouse, 40-year-old Tarlabaşı resident Bahattin Argis vented his anger at city officials for the helter-skelter nature of the evictions. “I am living in absolute uncertainty,” Argis fumed. “Despite being a house owner, I face the possibility of being thrown out of my own house at any moment!”
The Beyoğlu municipality that contains Tarlabaşı reportedly claims imminent domain over buildings slotted for destruction, even though the confiscated property is being sold to a private contractor. A spokesperson for the Beyoğlu municipality could not respond to questions from EurasiaNet.org about the eviction procedure in time for publication.
Argis, though, is not alone with his worries. Mine Erel, who bought the building where she has lived since 1977, worries about the safety of living in a semi-demolished neighborhood. “The municipality has evicted all the tenants in the neighboring houses. The house next to mine is in a state of total disrepair. What if there is a fire? What if the building comes crashing down?”
Bariş Kaşka, a lawyer representing about 100 plaintiffs in court cases against the city’s Tarlabaşı reconstruction project, calls the situation “a humanitarian drama.” Nobody is against the building renovations, Kaşka elaborated, “[b]ut my clients want to be part of [the] new project; they want to continue living in their neighborhood. [The municipality] cannot simply uproot all these people from a place they have lived in for at least 15 years.”
In a July 18 press release, human rights watchdog Amnesty International urged the municipality to stop the neighborhood’s forced evictions.
“The forced evictions disproportionally affect those groups most in need of protection; the urban renewal project violates the rights of these groups while it should respect and protect them,” specified Amnesty International’s Turkey researcher Andrew Gardner.
Transgender women are among those groups with few alternative options for housing. As is the case with refugees, Roma or Kurdish Internally Displaced Persons, Tarlabaşı is often the only place in the city where they can find a landlord willing to rent a flat to them, and at an affordable rent.
In a July 20 NTV Turkey television show, Beyoğlu Mayor Ahmet Demircan responded that Amnesty’s allegations about the evictions are “not true.”
Nonetheless, the allegations continue.
Kadriye Sert, a 60-year-old Tarlabaşı resident of 20 years, alleges that the municipality pressured her husband, Mehmet, to sign over their apartment to the government’s project partner, developer GAP Inşaat. Promises of a nicer flat in a new apartment block also were made, she claimed.
Sert’s husband agreed to the deal without having read the contract. “Only later did we realize what my husband agreed to -- we were all deeply shocked,” Sert said.
In exchange for the couple’s spacious 160-square-meter flat, the GAP Inşaat offered the Sert family a 40-square-meter apartment inside the project area – for the additional price of 68,000 lira (about $39,059), to be paid in cash once the Tarlabaşı reconstruction project is finished. “We live on a modest pension,” fumed Sert. “We could never afford to pay such a sum! This basically means that we gave up our flat for free.”
GAP Inşaat representatives were not available for comment.
Kadriye Sert recounts that city police came to the Serts’ flat and demanded that they leave immediately. “I started to cry and begged them to give me a few more days,” Sert recounted.
Monthly rents in parts of Tarlabaşı not affected by the reconstruction project have doubled since the evictions began; “from 300 lira (about $172.43) to at least 600 lira ($344.86),” she added.
The retired couple now lives out of a few plastic bags while their new apartment -- a small flat in disrepair they found with the help of a former neighbor -- is being painted. The flat’s 500-lira (about $289) rent consumes almost all of the Serts’ monthly income of 600 liras ($347.26).
“I am tired of crying,” Sert sighed. “But when I look around my old flat, remember all the nice memories and all the work we put in it, I cannot hold back my tears.”
Jonathan Lewis is a freelance photojournalist based in Istanbul. Constanze Letsch is a freelance writer also based in Istanbul.