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Poor, minorities push back against booming Turkey's urban renewal

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In Ankara alone, around 74,000 acres of land are subject to planned, ongoing, or recently completed urban-renewal programs.

The most controversial project to date was the demolition of the Sulukule district of Istanbul, a poor area near the city center that has been home to a community of Roma since the Byzantine era. Sulukule was torn down to build luxury villas.

The target of another forced gentrification plan is Tarlabasi, close to the city's central Taksim Square, a poor but vibrant neighborhood of Kurds, Roma, and an unlikely community of transgendered sex workers.

Squatters now on prime land

The main targets are the country's semilegal squatter communities known as "gecekondus," meaning "settled at night." They were built under cover of darkness or on weekends. Once the builders occupy their homes, Turkish law prevents them from being summarily evicted.

From the 1950s onward, successive governments have legalized many of the neighborhoods. But now they lie on what has become prime real estate, attracting developers and prompting municipalities to level them.

An amendment to Turkey's property law that was approved last year has concentrated far more power in the hands of the country's housing development administration, known by its Turkish acronym, TOKI.

"This new law is giving unlimited scope to TOKI to take property from people without caring what happens to them," says Umit Ozcan, general secretary of Turkey's Chamber of Urban Planners. "Under the Turkish Constitution, people have a right to protection of housing."

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