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Shock and confusion as Turkey seizes earthquake survivors' homes

5 min

Habip Yapar felt lucky that his home in southern Turkey withstood last year's devastating earthquake. Then a text message appeared on his phone in October telling him the government was taking ownership of the apartment.

A drone view shows a building, near which Hatice Altinoz waits for a truck to move her belongings from her apartment to a new house, as the government is transferring the apartment to the Treasury under a new urban transformation law, in Hatay, Turkey, February 2, 2024. Reuters/Umit Bektas

Habip Yapar felt lucky that his home in southern Turkey withstood last year's devastating earthquake. Then a text message appeared on his phone in October telling him the government was taking ownership of the apartment.

The message sent to Yapar, 61, declared that the deeds for his property in Hatay province were being transferred to the Treasury under an amendment to an urban planning law set to affect thousands of earthquake survivors.

Urbanisation Minister Mehmet Ozhaseki said in early February the government needed new powers established in the amendment to speed up the redevelopment of neighbourhoods in towns severely damaged by the earthquake, which flattened a swathe of the country's southeast on Feb. 6, 2023.

Hatay, the southernmost region of mainland Turkey, bordering Syria, suffered the most damage in the deadliest tremor in the country's modern history. Since then, reconstruction has fallen behind ambitious deadlines set by President Tayyip Erdogan.

According to the regulation, which was passed in November, the seizures were to create "reserve building areas," a temporary measure to expedite reconstruction. Those affected would be entitled to a property after paying towards the construction costs, it said, without providing details of the financial burden.

While earthquake insurance is compulsory in Turkey, the rule is not always enforced and insurance often covers only a fraction of the costs of rebuilding or buying new property.

Interviews with nearly two dozen residents, lawyers and local officials show that thousands of homeowners were blindsided by the seizure plans, with many learning on social media their properties would be affected.

Like Yapar, dozens in his coastal home town of Samandag received text messages even before the amendment was passed in November.

Five months later, the government has yet to inform affected people about how much they will pay, what happens if they are unable to, any compensation they might be entitled to, and exactly when and for how long their titles will be in the government's possession, the people Reuters spoke to said.

"It's like going to a restaurant where they bring you a dish, but you don't know the price. You have to pay whatever the bill is," said Ecevit Alkan, chairman of the Environment and Urban Law Commission at Hatay Bar Association.

Reuters spoke to four homeowners and two lawyers in the Hatay districts of Samandag, Defne and Antakya who have filed lawsuits with the Hatay administrative court to block the orders.

The urbanisation ministry and Erdogan's office did not respond to questions from Reuters. Several opposition parties have submitted parliamentary questions requesting more information from the ministry about the new law but they remain unanswered.

Yapar lives with his wife and adult son and daughter in a temporary tent shelter. At least 215,000 Hatay survivors are living in container camps or tents.

The retired civil engineer had been saving money to repair his two-storey home. With ownership now being transferred to the government, he cannot start work. The house is scheduled for demolition.

Yapar, among those who filed a lawsuit, denied the building was beyond repair.

"We can rebuild our houses ourselves, and we do not want a cent from the state."

HOMELESS IN HATAY

Just over a year since the devastating earthquake killed more than 53,000 people in Turkey, hundreds of thousands of survivors remain in temporary homes such as containers and tents.

Most of the affected owners have been living with acquaintances or in temporary shipping containers since the earthquake flattened or damaged their apartments and have not been told when the new buildings will be ready, residents and lawyers said.

Others have been made homeless by the seizure notices. Hatice Altinoz said she and her adult son Ahmet had to move from their damaged apartment in Hatay's Antakya because the building is in a reserve area largely cleared for reconstruction.

"Authorities did not provide us a container to stay in because our building had not collapsed, so I moved to my daughter's container house," Altinoz said.

Antakya residents Omer and Dilay Dolar, said they learned on social media that their five properties were in a designated area, where few buildings are standing.

"My family and I worked so hard to own these assets," said Dilay Dolar, 57, an entrepreneur. "But now it is unclear what the future will hold."

Hatay's federal government-run governor's office said on its website in February nearly 44,000 homes will replace transferred property. It did not give figures on how many people's property will be seized in the process and did not respond to questions from Reuters.

In total, Erdogan has promised 254,000 new homes for the province, but so far construction has been completed on less than 7,300 of those, data from the governor's office shows. Last year an official told Reuters limits on funds and rising prices were to blame for the delays.

The bar association's Alkan said nearly 50,000 people will be affected by the property seizures, based on the population in neighbourhoods designated as reserve areas in the province.

In Samandag, Mayor Refik Eryilmaz said he welcomed the government's plan for a modern bazaar and new housing in the declared reserve areas.

But, he said, it was wrong for the government to send text messages to his town's property owners without explaining the project or the legal and financial arrangements.

"The government authorities have failed to provide a satisfactory explanation to the public, which is problematic," Eryilmaz, from main opposition party CHP, said in an interview.

Some residents see politics at play. Hatay is an opposition-run district where Erdogan is keen to make inroads in local elections on March 31.

A speech he gave in the province to mark the first anniversary of the quake was widely interpreted as a veiled message that reconstruction aid would flow more smoothly with a ruling party administration.

Erdogan later emphasized that reconstruction efforts did not differentiate between government supporters and opponents.

LAW SUITS

With information scarce, the home owners and lawyers who spoke to Reuters were mistrustful and feared the state could keep property if owners are not able to pay.

The new amendment to the Law on the Transformation of Areas under Disaster Risk granted the ministry's Urban Transformation Directorate wide authority to designate private properties as reserve building areas without first getting consent from owners.

Orhan Ozen, a lawyer in Samandag, said the law violates property rights and does not specify how owners will be protected after their properties are handed over to the Treasury, despite promises of a smooth rebuilding process.

So far, the Urban Transformation Directorate has declared more than 200 hectares of land as reserve areas in Hatay province, official data shows.

Ozen, who filed lawsuits for stays on two parcels of land in Samandag, said the designation covered the most valuable properties in town.

"The balance between the public interest and the citizens is being ignored," Ozen said, adding that the lack of detail in the law has sown uncertainty, including what will happen to a new property if the owner dies before paying it off.

In one plea seen by Reuters, the urbanisation ministry said the request for a stay should be dismissed on grounds that plaintiffs only have rights over individual properties, not the broader area designated by the ministerial decision.

Samandag's central bazaar is among around 1.6 hectares in the district seized for renovation under the plans. Ali Tas, who runs a toy shop in the bazaar, said he was willing to work in a container for a while if the bazaar ultimately looks good.

But Hasan Fehmi Cilli, a 56-year old doctor, said neither he or his neighbours whose offices and shops are operating in the bazaar but are slated for redevelopment had given their consent. He was among those who have filed a lawsuit.

"There are lots of uncertainties. Will the state provide us a property in the same location, on the same plot, and of the same size?" Fehmi Cilli said, visibly angry.

By Ceyda Caglayan and Burcu Karakas

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