While the Justice Department has arrested more than 170 people – mostly contractors – in connection with the building collapses, many are focusing on that, blaming existing building codes. Of particular note is a 2018 “amnesty” law legalizing hundreds of thousands of structures across the country that did not have planning permission or had flouted building codes, including seismic safety measures.
Under the Amnesty Act, the owner of an unauthorized structure could simply pay a fee and have it legalized without 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 liras (about $4 billion at the time) after the 2018 law came into effect, Murat Kurum, the minister for the environment, urbanization and climate change, told parliamentarians in 2019.
“The amnesty is murder,” the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects said in a 2021 statement. “It should be assumed that all buildings legalized under this amnesty have not received engineering services and should be inspected,” the organization added added.
Professional chambers, which defend the interests of some 650,000 civil engineers, architects and urban planners, play an important role in Turkey, with the constitution stating that the organizations “act as public institutions” to “protect professional discipline and ethics”.
Also in 2021, a parliamentary report found that nearly 8 million buildings constructed that year were highly vulnerable to earthquakes.
Erdogan, who has a business-friendly reputation, campaigned for the amnesty law.
At a 2019 campaign rally in Hatay, one of the cities most damaged by the earthquakes, he said, “We have built 8,000 housing projects and solved the problems of 205,000 Hatay residents with the amnesty,” a reference to the granted Amnesty to Unauthorized Buildings.
According to Kurum, more than 7 million buildings have been 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 it was “not possible to be prepared for such a big catastrophe”.
Both the Turkish central government and local communities play a role in shaping cities. The reason why the ruling AKP faces so much criticism is that it holds the most seats in parliament and can pass critical laws like amnesty. It also controls the public housing authority, which implements urban development projects.
Local municipalities, some run by the ruling party and others by the opposition, also play an important role as they are responsible for creating zoning plans that establish building rights, e.g. boundaries. In addition, municipalities are responsible for inspecting construction projects in their districts and issuing permits if they comply with regulations.
Laws like the 2018 amnesty have fueled the construction boom and given hope to developers across the country that the government would support the sector, experts say.
“Turkey’s economic growth since the late 2000s has depended heavily on construction,” said Bengi Akbulut, 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 and even doubled the growth rate of GDP at times,” added Akbulut, who has written extensively on Turkey’s economy and government.
Huge development projects, wide highways, bridges and airports were AKP showpieces, promoted at rallies and covered by pro-government media.
Construction activity peaked after the introduction of another much-discussed law in 2012 dealing with the transformation of areas prone to natural disasters. While the government promised to use the legislation to rebuild unsafe buildings, the new regulations gave the government expanded powers to designate entire neighborhoods as “vulnerable” and forcibly confiscate property by significant domain.
Renovating old and insecure building stock has been one of the AK Party’s most well-known promises over the years. But despite the increased powers granted by the 2012 law, critics like Gencay Serter of the Chamber of Urban Planners say authorities have not focused on rebuilding older buildings to make them earthquake-proof, giving priority to new builds instead have given.
Allegations of widespread corruption undermining building security have also long dogged the construction sector in Turkey.
Building codes, which are enforced at the local level, were often not followed due to “comfortable relations between builders and the government,” according to Howard Eissenstat, associate professor of Middle Eastern history at St. Lawrence University in New York.
Another factor contributing to a lack of proper oversight was a building inspection system that was introduced in 2011 and was in effect until 2019, according to the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects. Under this system, contractors could choose any inspection company they wanted and pay the inspectors themselves.
This “led to some illegalities in the system,” said Mustafa Erdik, a professor at the Institute of Earthquake Engineering at Istanbul’s Bogazici University.
The law was revised in 2019, so the Department of Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change began assigning inspectors to contractors. In announcing the overhaul, the ministry wrote that the primary goal was to address “deficiencies in inspections” caused by “illegal commercial relationships between contractors and inspection companies,” something “which all stakeholders agreed was the biggest problem of the system”.
Zone changes by central or local government agencies have also been an issue.
“Areas that were not safe for construction, such as riverbeds and other unstable areas, were modified and cleared for construction,” Serter said.
Over the years, the Chamber of Architects and the Chamber of Urban Planners have sued the government on numerous occasions over objections to the safety of construction projects. They have won in some 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 the government’s building policy, architect Mucella Yapici and urban planner Tayfun Kahraman, have been jailed since April for their involvement in the Gezi Park protests sparked by the government’s plan for what is now a park to build a shopping center In Istanbul.
Yapici, a vocal advocate of strict earthquake-proof standards, asked her attorneys to tweet from her account on Saturday.
“After the search and rescue is over, prosecutors and experts have to come to every wreckage,” Yapici said wrote. “Concrete/iron etc. samples must be taken from the wreck as evidence!”