Members of the Düzce Solidarity Housing Cooperative at the project site, including Sami Kılıç (center, with dog) and Safiye Alkaya (second row, in gray cardigan)
Members of the Düzce Solidarity Housing Cooperative at the project site, including Sami Kılıç (center, with dog) and Safiye Alkaya (second row, in gray cardigan) Düzce Umut Atölyesi

Twenty years after being displaced by an earthquake, families in Düzce, Turkey, are getting homes that they helped design and build themselves.

ISTANBUL—Serdar Yolay was 13 years old when a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck his hometown in northwestern Turkey, killing more than 700 people and destroying thousands of homes, including his family’s.

“Thank God, we weren’t home then; we’d gone to my aunt’s house for a meal,” Yolay recalled. “When we came back into town, we couldn’t find our bearings—all of the buildings in the city center were laying in the streets. You could step on top of the five-story building we’d lived in. It was completely flattened.”

A woman carries belongings that she saved from her collapsed apartment as a bulldozer removes rubble in Düzce, November 15, 1999. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

Today, the hardhat-clad Yolay, a structural engineer, is leading construction on 234 new apartments for roughly 1,000 displaced residents of his town, Düzce. It is the last chapter in a historic, two-decade-long battle for tenants’ rights in Turkey.

“This is the most hopeful mass housing project in Turkey,” said Yaşar Adanalı, co-founder of the Beyond Istanbul urban research institute. “What’s happening in Düzce is a rare example of a holistic approach to housing that can be a model for other neighborhoods.”

The Düzce Hope Homes, as the units have been dubbed, were recognized in December as one of eight finalists in the World Habitat Awards 2017, which honor innovative housing solutions around the globe. The homes are being constructed in unusually close collaboration with their future residents, who have taken part in every stage of the design and building process. They are also being built at the same time that towns and cities around Turkey, especially large metropolises such as Istanbul and Ankara, undergo wave after wave of “urban transformation” projects that often displace low-income residents, particularly renters, in favor of profit-driven development.

A rendering of part of the new complex (Düzce Umut Atölyesi)

When the November 1999 quake in Düzce—the second devastating earthquake to hit the region in less than three months—left Safiye Alkaya’s rented home too badly damaged to live in, she spent more than six months, including a snowy winter, in an emergency tent. Then came two years in a temporary prefabricated house. “After those two years were over, we had to find our own places to live, but rents had gone way up,” said Alkaya, who had to move outside of Düzce to find somewhere she could afford.

Situations like Alkaya’s prompted the founding of the Düzce Solidarity Housing Cooperative for Homeless and Tenant Earthquake Victims in 2003. “After this big disaster, with all these lives lost and damage done, we wanted to know why the government wasn’t building any homes for renters [like it was for homeowners],” said Sami Kılıç, the cooperative’s current president. (The government constructed several thousand new residences in Düzce for homeowners whose houses were destroyed, and granted loans to a few thousand more to help them rebuild.)

A renters’ protest following the earthquake (Düzce Umut Atölyesi)

The cooperative organized protests in Düzce and the Turkish capital of Ankara, where hundreds of affected families camped out in a city-center park to demand recognition of their rights. After a decade of direct action and legal challenges, in 2014, the government finally gave the cooperative the deed to a plot of subsidized, serviced land on which to build new homes.

“We wanted to make sure we had safe, healthy, and affordable homes, but we didn’t know anything about building houses; we didn’t have any engineers or technicians among us,” said Kılıç, recounting the cooperative’s history over cups of hot black tea at the Düzce Hope Homes worksite. Volunteers from Istanbul, about 150 miles west of Düzce, had joined relief efforts following the earthquakes; through these connections, the cooperative made an open call for pro bono support from architects, engineers, and other design and planning professionals.

Faruk Büyükyoran, a civil engineer, is one of dozens of volunteer members of the Istanbul-based Düzce Hope Studio formed in response to the cooperative’s call. “This was a totally new way of thinking for me, but their long legal struggle impressed me, and I wanted to be involved,” he said.

Members of the studio traveled twice a week to Düzce, where they engaged residents in a comprehensive series of design consultations on everything from the floor plans of the homes to the energy-saving properties of various types of insulation. They gave community members tiny blocks to move around on site plans to explore and debate the tradeoffs between apartment size and shared public spaces, and devised a method for people to choose their own neighbors in the new development.

Cooperative members doing a participatory design exercise (Düzce Umut Atölyesi)

The participatory design process, which has rarely been applied in Turkey, gave the professionals new insights into their own work as well. “We’re [big-city] people; we hadn’t thought about things that the residents brought up like having balcony space for food preparation or storage rooms to put up pickles for the winter,” said Adanalı.

The residents’ desire for community as well as safety led to a collective decision to forego the gated-development model popular in Turkey, instead placing the three-story buildings around courtyards that can be used as gardens or play areas, generating security through lively shared spaces. In part due to members of the cooperative pitching in their own labor on the worksite each month, the new homes will be significantly cheaper than the government-built residences next door.

Although the Düzce cooperative’s fight for housing rights is unusually sympathetic because of the destruction caused by the earthquakes, “the way they engaged with [design] practitioners and made sure subgroups of women, children, and older people each had forums to add their voices and be listened to is something that other initiatives can learn from,” said Jenny Line, a program manager for World Habitat. “They’ve also been very open, documenting everything they’re doing online with photos and videos so that others can be inspired by them.”

But the cooperative’s journey is not yet over—it still needs to secure financing for the remaining stages of construction—and the possibility of replicating its success is becoming an increasingly difficult prospect in Turkey.

The Düzce Hope Homes under construction, seen from the air (Düzce Umut Atölyesi)

Under a Turkish law meant to prevent informal urbanization, cooperatives like the one in Düzce were entitled to seek subsidized land, technical support, and affordable loans from the government housing agency TOKİ, according to Adanalı. But changes to TOKİ’s mandate have made the agency an increasingly ubiquitous, and powerful, developer of for-profit real-estate projects. Hope Studio members say officials have told them that the law will no longer be applied in the way it was for Düzce.

“Even with a well-mobilized population, an effective legal struggle, and a solidarity front of lawyers, architects, and planners, it took 15 years for the Düzce cooperative to get the title deed to the land, and many families meanwhile had to drop out due to the arduous struggle and legal expenses,” said independent urban researcher Cihan Baysal. She added that the deck is increasingly stacked against communities fighting eviction, citing as one example a 2016 amendment to the law on disaster-risk areas that allows a neighborhood to be designated as risky—and thus open to demolition and rebuilding—on the basis of “disruption of public order and safety.”

“Under these ambiguous terms, the government can easily declare any resistance area risky,” Baysal said. “Especially since the July 2016 coup attempt, mass mobilization has become very difficult; even press statements are not allowed, and riot police break up neighborhood meetings.”

In Düzce, though, optimism still reigns, with cooperative members visibly joyful as they watch the apartment blocks that will make them first-time homeowners being constructed. Cooperative president Kılıç proudly showed off the half-built social facilities that he says will include shared spaces for childcare, recreation, gardening, and an income-generating communal kitchen.

“Come back in the summer—we’ll have an open-air cinema on the roof,” he said, waving toward the gray winter sky with a smile.

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