Sold Overnight: Istanbul’s Gecekondu Housing and the Challenge of Ownership

By Annika Marlen Hinze | Assistant Professor of Political Science - Fordham University | Jan 12, 2016
Sold Overnight: Istanbul’s Gecekondu Housing and the Challenge of Ownership

This essay series examines the roles that community-based organizations (CBOs) have played as active participants in the process of "governing" megacitieswhether in service delivery, risk mitigation, or the creation of livelihood and other opportunities. More ...


 

Scholars of neoliberalism have long argued that the recent increase in involvement of private actors in urban governance and development has reduced the state from a regulator to an agent of market forces.[1] This is in line with the general view of globalization scholars, who see a general trend of market deregulation and increasingly powerless nation-states pitted against global market forces.[2] In these scenarios, state institutions are often perceived as the “good” forces, pitted against “evil” private actors attempting to exploit the working class and the marginalized.

However, many conceptualizations of neoliberalism in the face of globalization fail to properly break down the essence of “private” and “state” actors, as well as their quite complicated interactions in urban development decision-making. After briefly reviewing the literature on neoliberalism and urban development, this essay will introduce the case of gececondu neighborhoods in Istanbul, which are claimed by the state for urban redevelopment, and the historical process of gecekondu development in the city. In reviewing the history, as well as the current state of urban renewal in Turkey, it will attempt to unpack the “state” and its role in housing, urban development, and market regulation, and determine its true role in the process. Contrary to neoliberalist conceptualizations of the role of the state (or its absence) in urban development, in the case of Istanbul, the state’s absence, or at the very least its silent laissez-faire attitude, actually produced an opening for poor, rural migrants to create their own (informal) housing in and around the city. With the increasing desirability of urban land to domestic and international developers, however, it was precisely the advent of state regulation that led to the increasing displacement of Istanbul’s gecekondu residents.

Neoliberalism theory and the role of the state

The term “neoliberalism” is employed widely in recent urban scholarship on gentrification and the impact of globalization and market forces on urban life. Scholars such as Harvey[3] and Ong[4] have argued that neoliberalism basically refers to a withdrawal of state institutions from certain areas of regulation, primarily from the market, but also from other realms of public life. According to Smith, policy approaches to the city, under the impact of globalization, have changed dramatically: neoliberal urbanism has replaced liberal urban policy at the national level. Smith argues:

From Reagan to Thatcher, and, later, Kohl, the provisions of that liberal urban policy were systematically disempowered or dismantled at the national scale, and public policy constraints on gentrification were replaced by subsidized private-market transformations of the urban built environment.[5]

In a more recent article on neoliberalism and urban restructuring, Peck, Theodore, and Brenner[6] refine their vision of the impact of neoliberalism. They argue that, unlike the Thatcherite and Reaganite “rollback neoliberalisms” of the 1980s, the “new center” of the 1990s, defined by left of center fiscal conservatives, such as Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and Gerhard Schröder, created a new form of neoliberalism, which is politically mediated, and thus hybrid.[7] This new “rollout neoliberalism,” in their view, has a “parasitical relationship” with other state and social institutions, in that it exists through them, instead of against them.[8]

Swyngedouw et al[9] similarly describe this new form of neoliberalism. Within the context of large-scale urban development projects, they are more specific about neoliberalism’s impacts on the city: through what they call “New Urban Policy,” they describe governmental institutions as being more than just facilitators for private actors taking on urban development. Instead, they argue, while state institutions still remain in charge of development, they actively seek out and delegate (projects?) to private actors in the process. So, in other words, the recent increase in private actors in urban infrastructure development is not, as previously conceived by neoliberalism scholars, due to a rollback of government functions, but rather due to a fundamental change in the relationship between private and state actors. While these more nuanced models of neoliberalism seem to be more applicable to recent developments in North America and Western Europe, they may have limited applicability outside of the Western context.

Gecekondular in Istanbul

Gecekondu housing is symbolic for the wave of urbanization that swept over Turkey, and specifically over Istanbul during the second half of the 20th century. Urbanization, or more specifically rural-urban migration, was the consequence of a period of intense industrialization the country underwent in the years after World War II. Istanbul’s earliest gecekondu developments date back to 1946. During those years, Istanbul’s population grew dramatically in proportion to that of the rest of the country. In 1955, the city’s population accounted for just over five percent of the country’s population, while in 2000, it had grown to account for more than 14 percent of Turkey’s total population.[10] Istanbul’s growth is still rather explosive: According to Turkey’s State Institute of Statistics,[11] the city’s estimated total population grew by roughly 1.5 million between 2009 and 2014 to just over 14 million.

The city's gecekondu settlements represented a way to accommodate the large streams of blue-collar migrants who descended upon the city in search of low-skill industrial jobs.

The city’s gecekondu settlements represented a way to accommodate the large streams of blue-collar migrants who descended upon the city in search of low-skill industrial jobs. Their settlements were informal, which is to say more or less illegal: the literal idea behind the term gecekondu (“landed” or “settled by night”) implies that land settled overnight without interference could be retained by those who had settled it, even if the land was never officially acquired and no deed existed to indicate ownership. Gecekondu settlements were, for the most part, tolerated by governmental institutions, because they introduced a quick and cheap way to accommodate workforces the industrializing city was in desperate need of. In addition, as Keyder[12] notes, the Ottoman tradition of public land, in which most land was considered public, and ownership rights were defined against (and not by) the state, “never made a full transition to a modern order.”[13] Therefore, according to Keyder, property relations remained unresolved in many cases.

Land “amnesties,” which “legalized” such informal gecekondu housing, however, were implemented by the Turkish government in 1949, 1953, 1963, 1966, 1976, 1983, 1984, and 1986. Balaban[14] notes that these amnesties led to the commodification of urban land and, ultimately, served as a tool for social upward mobility for more established gecekondu dwellers who became the landlords of new arrivals.

The increased speed of urbanization, and the economic shift from import-substitution to an economic liberalization program, which was designed to open the Turkish market to the world and cut public expenditures, led to a changed approach in the state’s gecekondu policy. As noted by Saraçoğlu and Demirtaş-Milz, this transition “marks the intensification in and a further consolidation of the rule of property relations and commodity fetishism in social life.” [15] After its general election victory in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) started to aggressively plan and implement Urban Transformation Projects (UTPs). Kuyucu and Ünsal note that:

These large renewal programs are the primary mechanisms by which a capitalist logic is imposed on urban land and housing markets, especially in incompletely commodified informal housing areas and ‘rundown’ inner city neighborhoods. [16]

They further note that state actors play into the hands of private actors, such as developers and financial institutions, by actively intervening in and radically redefining the relationship between residents and urban space.

Urban Transformation Projects, it has been argued, are particularly attractive in gecekondu zones, because the land can be redeveloped (and “aesthetically sanitized”) at a comparatively low price by involving private developers and re-annexing land, whose ownership status was never completely resolved in legal terms.[17] Therefore, the incomplete commodification of land in Turkey, where land was acquired by rural migrants through squatting, and deeds were partially distributed through land amnesties, had a dual effect. On the one hand, the post-war gecekondu movement opened the door for private land ownership and land commodification.[18] On the other hand, land ownership was incomplete and often remained informal,[19] allowing the state to reclaim and redistribute it after urban land values soared and new sites for development were needed.

Land, development, and property rights in Istanbul—implications for neoliberalism

Kuyucu and Ünsal[20] note that after the 2001 economic crash, the governing AKP implemented a series of reforms, which would allow the state to re-acquire gecekondu land and use it for urban transformation projects. While the incomplete ownership transformations had left a number of gecekondu dwellers with unresolved land ownership status, allowing the state to reclaim such land, the land amnesties of the 1940s to 1980s had established land ownership for a considerable number of gecekondu dwellers.

Municipality Law No. 5393, which was passed in 2005, gave wide-ranging authority for the designation of urban renewal areas to local municipalities.[21] Municipalities can cite relatively broad reasons, such as protecting “the historical and cultural texture of the city,” or the protection from natural disaster, as justifications for the implementation of renewal projects.[22] Considering that the entire city of Istanbul is located on the North Anatolian Fault Line, triggering frequent earthquakes, the law allows for some flexibility on the part of political decision-makers under the rubric of “protecting against natural disaster.” While Law No. 5393 required municipalities to obtain the permission of the City Council for declaring any area a renewal area, this is no longer necessary: in 2010, Law No. 5998 amended Law No. 5393, allowing local municipalities to implement renewal projects of various nature (such as the creation of housing, industrial sites, business and technology centers, recreation areas, public service points, the renewal of decrepit sites, and for the purposes of protecting historic sites against natural disasters)..[23]

Renewal zones can be declared anywhere, regardless of existing infrastructure, if the municipality finds the area under the threat of natural disaster. Finally, Law No. 6303, which was passed in 2012, allowed for local municipalities, TOKI (the Housing Development Administration of Turkey), and the Ministry of Environment and Urbanism to implement renewal projects even outside of any previously designated disaster risk zones. It essentially provides these local and state-level authorities to decide for themselves which areas are at risk of natural disaster, giving them a free pass for redevelopment. All three laws introduced here allow for existing residents to be expropriated on the premises of a looming natural disaster, unless they cooperate with specific stipulations of the municipality. A 2009 report on forced evictions in Istanbul presented to the UN Habitat Program by an advisory group noted that these laws are often used as the basis for formulating threats against current residents of poor urban neighborhoods, forcing them to comply with the renewal plans or be bought out and displaced.[24] Dincer, Enlil, and Islam[25] find that these natural disaster precautions primarily provide a premise for local and national-level authorities to push through their development plans, regardless of the residents’ wishes and existing residential structures.

As the case of Istanbul implies, the state is not merely the facilitator of development but rather plays an active role in it. Nor is it cast aside by the active involvement of private actors in urban politics.

This developing legal structure for urban redevelopment in Istanbul implies that we need to fundamentally rethink our conceptualizations of neoliberalism. While the definition of neoliberalism has changed over time, and the term tends to be applied widely and liberally by scholars and practitioners alike, it is important to provide some conceptual clarity. As the case of Istanbul implies, the state is not merely the facilitator of development but rather plays an active role in it. Nor is it cast aside by the active involvement of private actors in urban politics. It appears that, in the case of Istanbul, (urban) politics is still very much alive and made primarily by policy-makers and government institutions at various levels of government. The political trends, which are exemplified in the new legal provisions for Urban Transformation Projects in the city, indicate that Istanbul’s municipalities, as well as TOKI, have been endowed with a considerable amount of decision-making power. Governmental institutions in Istanbul and Turkey appear to rely on private actors for investment, but they do not seem to entrust them with political power, as has been indicated by some scholars of neoliberalism. The decision-making power, when it comes to urban development decisions, still very much remains within the realm of politics. While political decision-makers may delegate some aspects of urban development to private actors, they remain in charge of the process and create the rules for it. Some scholars, such as Swyngedouw et al. have moved to build more differentiated conceptual frameworks beyond a state-private sector dichotomy.[26] While this is laudable, these frameworks must also move to understand better the world beyond the West, where the primary development of global urban politics is taking place and democratic transparency may be more complicated, to say the least.

In order to better understand and account for the way the urban poor are affected by economic developments in those parts of the world, as well as create solutions to displacement, we must draw from these case studies in building new conceptual frameworks.          


[1] Neil Smith, “New Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy,” in Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore, eds., Spaces of Neoliberalism: Urban Restructuring in North America and Western Europe (Maiden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), pp. 80-103; Jamie Gough, “Neoliberalism and Socialization in the Contemporary City: Opposites, Complements and Instabilities,” Ibid., pp. 58-78.

[2] Saskia Sassen, “Whose City Is It? Globalization and the Formation of New Claims,” Public Culture, Vol. 8 (1996), pp. 205-223; and Susan Strange, “The Erosion of the State.” Current History, Vol. 96 (1997), pp. 365-369.

[3] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[4] Aihwa Ong, Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).

[5] Neil Smith, “New Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy,” in Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore, eds., Spaces of Neoliberalism: Urban Restructuring in North America and Western Europe (Maiden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), pp. 80-103.

[6] Jamie Peck, Nik Theodore, and Neil Brenner, “Neoliberal Urbanism: Models, Moments, Mutations,” SAIS Review, 29:1 (2009), pp. 49-66.

[7] Ibid., p. 55.

[8] Ibid., p. 52.

[9] Erik Swyngedouw, Frank Moulaert, and Arantxa Rodriguez, “Neoliberal Urbanisation in Europe: Large-Scale Urban Development Projects and the New Urban Policy,” in Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore, eds., Spaces of Neoliberalism: Urban Restructuring in North America and Western Europe (Maiden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), pp. 194-229.

[10] Gizem Akdoğan, “Dealing with rapid development: Creation of the informal urban economy and gecekondu housing in Istanbul,” Graduate Theses and Dissertations, Iowa State University. Paper No. 10809 (2009).

[11] City Population, “Turkey: Istabul City,” http://www.citypopulation.de/php/turkey-istanbulcity.php.

[12] Cağlar Keyder, “Globalization and Social Exclusion in Istanbul.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 29:1 (2005), pp. 124-134.

[13] Ibid., p. 126.

[14] Utku Balaban, “The Enclosure of Urban Space and the Consolidation of the Capitalist Land Regime in Turkish Cities,” Urban Studies, 48:10 (2010), pp. 2162-2179.

[15] Cenk Saraçoğlu and Neslihan Demirtaş-Milz, “Disasters as an ideological strategy for governing neoliberal urban transformation in Turkey: insights from Izmir/Kadifekale,” Disasters, 38:1 (2005), p. 195.

[16] Tuna Kuyucu and Özlem Ünsal, “Urban Transformation as State-led Property Transfer: An Analysis of Two Cases of Urban Renewal in Istanbul,” Urban Studies, 47:7 (2010), p. 1480.

[17] Tuna Kuyucu and Özlem Ünsal, “Urban Transformation as State-led Property Transfer: An Analysis of Two Cases of Urban Renewal in Istanbul,” Urban Studies, 47:7 (2010), pp. 1479-1499; and Cenk Saraçoğlu and Neslihan Demirtaş-Milz, “Disasters as an ideological strategy for governing neoliberal urban transformation in Turkey: insights from Izmir/Kadifekale,” Disasters, 38:1 (2005), pp. 178-201.

[18] Ibid.; and Tuna Kuyucu and Özlem Ünsal, “Urban Transformation as State-led Property Transfer: An Analysis of Two Cases of Urban Renewal in Istanbul,” Urban Studies, 47:7 (2010), pp. 1479-1499.

[19] Cağlar Keyder, “Globalization and Social Exclusion in Istanbul.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 29:1 (2005), pp. 124-134.

[20] Tuna Kuyucu and Özlem Ünsal, “Urban Transformation as State-led Property Transfer: An Analysis of Two Cases of Urban Renewal in Istanbul,” Urban Studies, 47:7 (2010), pp. 1479-1499.

[21] Fatma Ünsal and Sevkiye Sence Türk, “Legal and Institutional Context of Urban Planning and Urban Renewal in Turkey: Thinking about Istanbul,” in Gülden Erkut and M. Reza Shirazi, eds., Dimensions of Urban Re-Development: The Case of Beyoğlu, Istanbul. Results of a case study project 2013 (Technische Universität Berlin, Urban Management Program, 2014), pp. 15-30. For more details on Municipality Law No. 5393, see also http://www.migm.gov.tr/en/PDF/Municipalities.pdf.

[22] Fatma Ünsal and Sevkiye Sence Türk, “Legal and Institutional Context of Urban Planning and Urban Renewal in Turkey: Thinking about Istanbul,” in Gülden Erkut and M. Reza Shirazi, eds., Dimensions of Urban Re-Development: The Case of Beyoğlu, Istanbul. Results of a case study project 2013 (Technische Universität Berlin, Urban Management Program, 2014), pp. 15-30.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Advisory Group on Forced Evictions (AGFE) (2009): “Mission to Istanbul, Republic of Turkey, June 8-11, 2009.” Report to the Executive Director of the UN Habitat Program.

[25] İclal Dinçer, Zeynep Enlil, and Tolga İslam, “Regeneration in a New Context: A New Act on Renewal and its Implications on the Planning Processes in İstanbul.” Paper presented at Bridging the Divide: Celebrating the City. ACSP – AESOP Fourth Joint Congress. July 6-11, 2008, Chicago, IL.

[26] Erik Swyngedouw, Frank Moulaert, and Arantxa Rodriguez, “Neoliberal Urbanisation in Europe: Large-Scale Urban Development Projects and the New Urban Policy,” in Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore, eds., Spaces of Neoliberalism: Urban Restructuring in North America and Western Europe (Maiden, MAK Blackwell, 2002), pp. 194-229.