After earthquake, Istanbul gripped by fear that bigger disaster awaits


Istanbul (Reuters) – The deadliest earthquake in Turkey’s modern history has reawakened fears on the other side of the country that Istanbul is an even bigger disaster waiting to happen, sending hundreds of thousands scrambling to find safer homes.

Some 5 million of the 16 million residents of Turkey’s largest city live in risky homes, official data show, given it lies just north of a faultline crossing the Marmara Sea in the northwest of the country.

Since tremors devastated the southeast on Feb. 6, killing more than 50,000, anxiety has gripped the metropolis and revived memories of a 1999 earthquake that killed 17,000 in the region.

Tens of thousands of buildings collapsed in the February quake, drawing accusations that lax building standards across Turkey generally had contributed to the disaster and fuelling concerns about the soundness of many ageing buildings in Istanbul.

Since the quake, the number of applications in Istanbul to demolish and reconstruct at risk homes – where nearly 500,000 people live – has tripled. The scramble has also exacerbated already sky-high rental housing prices.

“I was conscious of the risk in Istanbul but when such a big earthquake happened it started to feel more real and I began to have anxiety,” said Sevgi Demiray, 25, whose uncle and friends were killed in the quake in the southern city of Antakya.

Fear that another tragedy could strike forced her to leave Istanbul because she couldn’t afford a new apartment there, she said. Similar fears spread after the 1999 quake but subsided over time.

It is unclear how many people have left Istanbul in the last two months. Ali Ayilmazdir, head of a home movers’ association, said 15-20 people are now calling companies to request moves each day, compared to 3-5 before the February quake.

The preoccupation with safe housing comes ahead of May 14 elections seen as President Tayyip Erdogan’s biggest political challenge in his two decades in power.

Trapped By Soaring Rents

According to a 2019 report by seismologists, a 7.5 magnitude quake – similar to the one in February – would at least moderately damage 17% of the 1.17 million buildings in Istanbul, which straddles the Bosphorus strait dividing Europe and Asia.

However, seismologists said the February disaster has not changed the likelihood of an Istanbul quake, with the two areas on different faultlines.

Yet many residents say they feel trapped by a cost-of-living crisis after inflation surged to a 24-year peak above 85% in October and with fewer prospects of finding work elsewhere.

Any disaster in Istanbul would stagger Turkey’s economy given the broader Marmara region accounts for some 41% of national GDP.

Nilay, a doctoral student and new mother, has sought to leave but feels stuck as her husband’s work in finance requires him to be in the city, while safer districts are out of their price range.

“It is impossible to move to places that are said to have more solid ground because of the rising prices after the earthquake,” said Nilay, who lives in the high-risk district of Avcilar by the Marmara Sea.

Turkish rental prices leapt 190% in February from a year earlier, with Istanbul rents up 138%, according to Bahcesehir University Economic and Social Research Center (BETAM), sharply higher than consumer price inflation of 55% in February.

Many of those unable to move have instead sought peace of mind by requesting surveys to determine their buildings’ safety, with some 70% of buildings constructed before the building code was sharply tightened in 2000.

Some 1.5 million homes are considered at risk in the city, Urban Planning Minister Murat Kurum said this week. According to official data, an average of more than three people live in each household, meaning up to 5 million live in these properties.

Istanbul municipality’s housing agency KIPTAS says it has received applications to demolish and rebuild at cost price 490,000 homes.

That amounts to 25,000 applications, up from 8,600 before the quake. However, just 200 have reached the construction stage as at least two thirds of residents in a building must agree to the project, KIPTAS said.

“Unfortunately the fear of this recent quake was not enough to push people for a compromise and agree on rebuilding their homes,” said KIPTAS general manager Ali Kurt. “People need to accept that their homes are risky.”

More than 150,000 applications have also been made to the municipality requesting assessments of their buildings’ soundness, with processing expected to take a year.

However, fears of what those tests will show are holding many people back.

“This old building is not going to get high marks. There is no need to see that in writing,” said Nurten, 76, a retired civil servant living on Istanbul’s Asian side. “What if later I am asked to vacate my property? I can’t face that.”

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