While the Ministry of Justice has arrested more than 170 people, mostly contractors, in connection with the building collapses, many are targeting and blaming existing building regulations. Of particular note is a 2018 «amnesty» law that legalized hundreds of thousands of structures across the country that did not have planning permission or had ignored building codes, including earthquake safety measures.
Under the amnesty law, the owner of an unauthorized building could simply pay a fee and legalize it without any inspection. In other words, according to critics, the new regulation allowed builders to circumvent building codes while the government collected fees and fines.
The government raised 23 billion Turkish lira (about $4 billion at the time) after the 2018 legislation went into effect, Murat Kurum, the minister for the environment, urbanization and climate change, told lawmakers in 2019.
«Amnesty is murder,» said the Union of Chambers of Engineers and Architects of Turkey in a 2021 statement. “It must be assumed that all buildings legalized under this amnesty have not received any engineering services and must be inspected,” the organization added.
Professional chambers, which defend the interests of some 650,000 civil engineers, architects and urban planners, play an important role in Turkey, and the Constitution states that the organizations “operate as public institutions” to “protect professional discipline and ethics”.
Also in 2021, a parliamentary report found that about 8 million buildings built that year were highly vulnerable to earthquakes.
Erdogan, who cultivates a pro-business reputation, campaigned on the amnesty legislation.
At a 2019 election rally in Hatay, one of the cities hardest hit by earthquakes, he said“We built 8,000 residential projects and solved the problems of 205,000 Hatay residents with the amnesty,” referring to the amnesty granted to unlicensed construction.
According to Kurum, more than 7 million buildings were legalized thanks to the amnesty.
Turkey’s Ministry of Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change and Erdogan’s office did not respond to requests for comment on this story. On February 8, during a speech in Hatay, Erdogan said that «it was not possible to be prepared for such a big disaster.»
Both the central government of Turkey and local municipalities play a role in shaping cities. The reason the ruling AK Party has come under so much criticism is that it holds the majority of seats in Parliament and can pass critical laws such as amnesty. It also controls the public housing authority, which carries out urban development projects.
Local municipalities, some run by the ruling party and some by the opposition, also play an important role, as they are responsible for creating zoning plans that determine building rights, such as deciding which areas are open for construction and imposing caps. of surface and height. boundaries. Additionally, municipalities are responsible for inspecting construction projects in their districts and issuing permits if they are in compliance with the code.
Laws like the 2018 amnesty fueled the construction boom, giving developers across the country hope that the government would support the sector, experts say.
«Turkey’s economic growth since the late 2000s has been largely based on construction,» said Bengi Akbulut, an associate professor of geography, planning and the environment at Concordia University in Montreal.
“This is reflected in the growth rate of the construction sector between 2002 and 2014, which exceeded the growth rate of GDP and even doubled it at times,” added Akbulut, who has written extensively on the Turkish economy and government. .
Huge development projects, wide roads, bridges and airports have been masterpieces of the AK Party, announced during demonstrations and covered by pro-government media.
Construction peaked after the introduction of another hotly debated law in 2012, which addressed the transformation of areas at risk of natural disasters. While the government promised to use the legislation to make buildings unsafe, the new regulations gave the government expanded powers to designate entire neighborhoods as “at risk” and forcibly seize property through eminent domain.
The renovation of the old and insecure building stock has been one of the best-known promises of the AK Party over the years. But despite the expanded powers granted by the 2012 law, critics like Gencay Serter of the Chamber of Urban Planners say authorities did not focus on rebuilding older structures to make them earthquake-proof, instead prioritizing the new construction.
Furthermore, allegations of widespread corruption undermining the safety of buildings have long dogged the construction sector in Turkey.
Building codes, enforced at the local level, have often not been followed due to «cozy relationships between construction companies and the government,» according to Howard Eissenstat, an associate professor of Middle Eastern history at St. Lawrence University in NY.
Another factor contributing to the lack of proper supervision was a building inspection system implemented in 2011 and in force until 2019, according to the Turkish Union of Chambers of Engineers and Architects. Under this system, contractors could choose any inspection company they wanted and pay the inspectors themselves.
This «led to some illegality in the system,» said Mustafa Erdik, a professor in the earthquake engineering department at Istanbul’s Bogazici University.
The law was revised in 2019 so that the Ministry of Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change began assigning inspectors to contractors. In announcing the review, the ministry wrote that the most important goal was to eliminate «inspection deficiencies» caused by «illegal business links established between construction contractors and inspection companies,» something that «all stakeholders agreed was the biggest system problem».
Zoning changes made by central or local government authorities were also a problem.
“Areas that were not safe for construction, such as riverbeds and other unstable areas, have been rezoned and opened up for construction,” Serter said.
Over the years, the Chamber of Architects and the Chamber of Urban Planners have sued the government many times, challenging the safety of construction projects. They have won in some of the cases, delaying projects and angering Erdogan himself.
“These chambers, their names are architects, engineers,” Erdogan said in 2016. “But their goal is to demolish, not build.”
Two outspoken critics of government construction policies, architect Mucella Yapici and urban planner Tayfun Kahraman, have been jailed since April for their involvement in the Gezi Park protests, which were sparked by the government’s plan to build a shopping mall in what is now a park. In Estambul.
Yapici, a strong supporter of rigorous earthquake-proofing standards, asked her lawyers to tweet from her account on Saturday.
«After the search and rescue is over, prosecutors and experts should come to every shipwreck,» Yapici wrote. «Samples of concrete/iron etc. should be taken as evidence of the wreckage!»