“There’s a rumour that the municipality is offering TOKI apartments for people in Tarlabaşı to move into,” Özge Karataş says. Sitting in a small coffeehouse on a Tarlabaşı backstreet, she waits for her working day to kick off. As a sex worker, her shifts usually start in the late afternoon. “But that’s not for me. I can’t leave this neighbourhood for nothing.” Asked if she knows where the TOKI development is, Özge laughs and takes another sip of tea. “You go past Büyükçekmece, and then you go even further, and then further again. It’s pretty far from here.”
Only a few of the Tarlabaşı residents we spoke to have been offered an apartment in the TOKI satellite city; some said they had never even heard the name of its location, Kayabaşı, before. Nobody really knows where it is – so we decided to have a look. At the Taksim bus station, we are told to take a bus in the direction of Yenibosna or Ikitelli, and then ask again for directions.
After a journey by bus and minibus (dolmuş) that takes almost exactly two hours despite the light traffic, the driver of the dolmuş stops at a crossroads. “From here, you have to walk about 15 minutes,” he informs us. “This is as close as I can get you.” There are only a few low-rise houses around, some of them surrounded by gardens. Chickens scurry away to avoid an oncoming tractor and the occasional cow nibbles on patches of brownish grass. A variety of big and small road signs point in the directions of factories and businesses in the area. A shed is plastered with cardboard signs labelled “Kayabaşı Apartment Sales Office.” It is closed.
Following the dirt road, past scattered gecekondu, brick factories and a vast field on which garbage is burned in the open, we reach the outer ends of the TOKI development in Kayabaşı. Through the blue smoke, the immaculate yellow, beige and orange high-rises look like cardboard models in an architect’s office.
Despite the fact that a number of apartments have already been sold and a neighbourhood association founded, Kayabaşı is still a ghost town under construction, and access to the site itself is restricted to the employees of the construction companies, for safety reasons. We are lucky enough to hitch a ride with Ahmet*, the owner of one of the contractors working for the Housing Development Administration of Turkey, better known as TOKI. His firm is responsible for some of the many high rises currently being built in Kayabaşı. “Working for TOKI is a blessing for a construction company – there is just no end to the work,” he says. “We have barely noticed that there was a financial crisis. In France, many construction companies have gone bankrupt.” He agrees to take us on a tour of his company’s latest project.
Construction work on “Kayaşehir,” as the project is officially called, started in 2005. It is the biggest satellite city development in Turkey to date, a fact that the TOKI website proudly emphasizes. 65,000 apartments will be built here, and once the project is fully completed, the population of Kayaşehir is expected to total 400,000 people. Kayabaşı will be divided into 17 sectors and will be equipped with schools, policlinics, parks, mosques, police stations and sports facilities. According to the TOKI website, there will be 36 m2 of green area for each inhabitant of the development. The tender for a large shopping centre – planned to host 172 stores, offices, a hotel and a multiplex cinema – has been awarded to Makro Inşaat.
TOKI plans to hand over the keys to the first 11,500 apartments in April 2011. The rest of the houses are slated for completion in the following five years. In the meantime, evictions in Tarlabaşı continue.
With demand often higher than the supply, especially in Anatolian cities and towns, TOKI usually sells its apartments through a lottery drawing. In Kayabaşı, people from the low to very low income groups and people who “trade in” houses classified as a danger in the event of an earthquake can apply for a TOKI apartment without having to go through that process. At the moment, however, only 3 percent of the planned 65,000 apartments target the very low income group. Apartments in this category require a monthly payment of 306 TL (approx. 139 Euros) over the course of 180 months, as well as an initial 1,000 TL fee to be paid upon application. Additional costs of the move will include bills, fees for the doorman and money for the daily commute to work. Taking one public bus and a dolmuş, the roundtrip journey to Taksim costs approximately 8 TL, a considerable chunk out of the average Tarlabaşı resident’s salary.
For many of the current Tarlabaşı residents, the total cost of that bill is too high. Irregular employment and pay add to the pressure; very few people living in the area have social security, some do not even have health care. Esad Yarış, who has lived in the neighbourhood for years and has been told by the Beyoğlu Municipality to evacuate his house by the middle of March, is desperate: “I would move to Kayabaşı immediately if I could afford it. But 306 TL a month is simply too much for me. We cannot pay more than 100 TL a month.” Since he has a disability that prevents him from working, he has to rely on the very modest income provided by the rest of his family.
Because they cannot afford to buy property, roughly 70 percent of the people living in Tarlabaşı are tenants just like Esad Yarış – compared to an Istanbul average of 20 to 30 percent. Taking on the mortgage required to buy a house in a TOKI development is a risk that could only too easily end in homelessness – and the Housing Development Administration does not provide any rental housing.
In 2008, 300 Romani families from Sulukule in the Fatih Municipality were chosen to move into the TOKI development of Taşoğluk, approximately 40 kilometres from the city centre. Their neighbourhood had been declared an urban renewal area and was demolished, despite massive national and international protest. The average time to commute back to their neighbourhood, to their workplaces, relatives and friends, took three hours, according to Şükrü Pündük, head of the local Roma Association.
Only six months after they had moved into their new homes, 291 of the families moved back to Sulukule, complaining that their modern apartment blocks far away from the city felt like a prison. More importantly, many families had been unable to pay the monthly rates, the bills for gas, water and electricity and the fares for the journey back to Istanbul in order to secure a very modest income – Taşoğluk did not offer any jobs at all. However, with their old houses demolished, the returnees were officially homeless, and those who could not fall back on the help of family or friends started to live in tents or in the ruins of their old neighbourhood.
The Sulukule Roman Orchestra put their displeasure into song: “Rak, rak, raki… Yaktın bizi TOKI… Mahallemden kopardın, vicdansız TOKI” – “TOKI, you duped us… You ripped me out of my neighbourhood, unscrupulous TOKI.”
The relocation of people in low and very low income groups from slums into TOKI-style apartment blocks is a global problem, David Smith, the founder of the Affordable Housing Institute, said in a recent interview. “Throughout the world, high rises that do nothing but concentrate poor people fail. They failed in the U.S., they failed in the U.K., they failed in Paris,” he said. “Poor people are much more dependent on being connected with the street: [They have] flats over shops and workplaces, [their] kids need to be able to play.”
In many cases, Smith said, people would do what the residents of Sulukule did and simply move elsewhere, abandoning their allocated new high-rise homes in order to recreate these needs and minimise living costs. Citing the example of São Paulo, where the municipality demolished slum areas in order to replace shanty houses with five-storey apartment blocks, he explained: “Moving people from the ground floor to a high rise changed their lifestyle. They couldn’t keep chickens on the third floor, they couldn’t cut vegetables. They couldn’t burn wood for heat in a third-floor unit. The cost of living on the third floor was higher than what they could afford. So they were ‘market-evicted’ – they moved out.”
Many Tarlabaşı residents also fear that moving into a skyscraper in a satellite city will deprive them of the sense of community they like about their neighbourhood. Mustafa Arpacı, who runs a small second-hand furniture shop, has already moved from his house in Tarlabaşı to a more “modern” development in Üsküdar, on Istanbul’s Asian side. “Our neighbours in Üsküdar are very good people, but we don’t talk much,” he says. “Here, everybody knows everybody; we know where each neighbour comes from, and what kind of work they do.” He comes to Tarlabaşı every day, he says, and misses his friends on the days that he stays at home.
His neighbour Osman*, who has received several eviction letters since his building was sold a few months back, does not believe that the TOKI offer is being made with honest intentions. “They tell nothing but lies!” he exclaims. “You will have to pay with the last shirt off your back in order to become a homeowner with TOKI. You will have to work for 10, 20 years – I will probably not even live that long. They will suck you completely dry before giving you an apartment. That’s how TOKI works.”
It took Osman a long time to set up his shop and a home for himself and his family in Tarlabaşı, he says. His oldest children all work in textile workshops in the neighbourhood, making roughly 300 TL a week. “Our house, our workplaces, the schools – they are all here! If I have to move away, how will I be able to work? How will my son and my daughter work? With what money will we travel back and forth?” he asks. Having been displaced once from his home village in Siirt province 15 years ago, he knows how hard it is to start from scratch. “How will I be able to send my youngest children to school? They will have to work, too – what else could we do?” Osman is bitter that it is again the government that is threatening his family with eviction: “What kind of work will we be able to do in the middle of nowhere? We will become thieves, what else?”
On the way back from the TOKI development in Kayabaşı, we again hitch a ride with Ahmet, the contractor. He is proud of the work his company and the other TOKI contractors are doing and thinks people will be very happy in their new, modern homes. But isn’t Kayabaşı very far from Taksim and Tarlabaşı? Ahmet shrugs: “But everything will be here! There will be schools, hospitals, a big shopping centre, a cinema, parks and sports facilities – why would people want to go to Taksim? They won’t have a need for that, Kayabaşı will be a city in itself!”
To the question of whether a sense of community will survive the relocation to Kayabaşı and its radically different lifestyle, Ahmet remains quiet and smiles. Just before dropping us off, he admits: “Probably not. That won’t be possible here.”
He adds: “It’s quite a shame, isn’t it?”
* Names changed by the author