Mert Arslanalp, Boğaziçi University
*This memo is part of POMEPS Studies 31, Social Policy in the Middle East and North Africa. Download the full PDF here.
Housing policy is one of the important yet understudied arenas of social policy in the Middle East and elsewhere. It deserves more attention not only because housing is globally an inadequately met fundamental human need that anchors social life but also because of the crucial political conflicts that arise from its dual nature as a social policy arena on the one hand and as a means for economic growth and accumulation on the other. This was even the case in the heyday of advanced welfare states (Harloe 1995) but it is more so today when housing has transformed into a highly globalized and financialized economic sector (Harvey 2012; Rolnik 2013).
Turkish housing policy has experienced major transformations under the rule of Justice and Development Party (AKP) over the last 16 years. This radical policy change, among other things, has expanded the state’s participation in the production of housing at an unprecedented scale and initiated an equally unprecedented urban redevelopment agenda that targets informal settlements (gecekondu neighborhoods). A critical urban sociological scholarship located these new policies in the neoliberal transformations of capital accumulation in Turkey and examined how they generated new forms of displacement, inequality, and segregation particularly in Istanbul (Keyder, 2005; Bartu and Kolluoğlu 2008; Karaman, 2008; Kuyucu and Ünsal, 2010; Lovering and Türkmen, 2011; Türkün 2014; Kuyucu 2014). Another set of studies grounded in political science explored the ways in which the AKP has utilized this new housing policy to develop political support among business and popular sectors (Buğra and Savaşkan 2014; Marschall et al. 2016; Gürakar 2016; Esen and Gumuscu 2017; Ocaklı 2017; Demiralp 2018). Although these two streams of research capture the many aspects of this pre-AKP to AKP era change, the, subsequent modifications in AKP’s housing policy since its launch in 2003 have not received sufficient attention. Yet AKP’s housing policies, particularly its urban redevelopment pillar, have been far from static in terms of policy design and implementation.
This essay develops a preliminary coalitional analysis to explain the changes and the continuities in AKP’s housing policies. It argues that we must understand the shifts in AKP’s housing policies as efforts to politically govern the tensions that the original policy design generated in its social coalition. Drawing on Gibson’s territorial lens toward populist coalitions in Latin America (1997; 2000), I unpack AKP’s social coalition into its peripheral and metropolitan components. The former, consisting of both business and popular sectors in provinces outside Istanbul and Ankara, has benefited from the new affordable housing projects, which were at least partially financed by redeveloping Istanbul’s land stock via public-private partnerships. These partnerships also transferred immense rents to Istanbul-based big construction business in AKP’s metropolitan coalition. While satisfying these three groups in its social coalition, the new policies, however, ran the risk of severing the long-established ties between the party and its popular base in Istanbul’s gecekondu neighborhoods to the extent that plans for redeveloping their lands threatened them with displacement, long-term indebtedness, loss of community, and anticipated loss of property ownership. Such grassroots discontent generated contentious and legal mobilization at the local level and manifested itself during the 2009 local elections. The result has been continuous modifications in urban redevelopment policies to manage these tensions in AKP’s metropolitan coalition. Consequently, most consolidated gecekondu neighborhoods in Istanbul succeeded to remain in place 15 years after the authorities first pledged to eradicate and redevelop them. This research memo, thus, argues that Istanbul’s popular sectors have been able to influence the housing policy outcomes more than often assumed despite an increasingly authoritarian regime, which has centralized urban governance and prioritized construction as an engine of economic growth.
AKP’s new housing policy
Shortly after getting elected to office in November 2002, the nascent AKP government initiated a radical transformation of the Turkish housing policy. One of the most important changes under the AKP has been the direct provision of housing by the state at an unprecedented scale. The public sector’s direct contribution to housing supply had been historically very meager (Buğra 1998; Özdemir 2011). For example, Mass Housing Agency (TOKI), a public agency directly connected to the office of the prime minister, only produced 43,415 units between its foundation in 1984 and 2002 and primarily served as a provider of inexpensive housing credits (Bayraktar 2006: 172; Perouse, 2013: 82). In stark contrast, a restructured TOKI has initiated or completed building at least 613,274 units between 2003 and March 2018. Additionally, Emlak GYO, TOKI’s subsidiary real-estate investment trust, has initiated or completed 105,236 units in upscale real-estate projects predominantly built on public lands that are under TOKI’s possession, while Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s construction firm, KIPTAS, produced 75,000 units.
Unlike the Western social rental housing programs of the postwar era, the public sector in Turkey produces houses only for sale. Although TOKI categorizes 82 percent of its housing production as social housing, even a generous calculation that considers the units sold under the categories of low-income, post-disaster, rural, and urban transformation housing projects as low-income housing reveals that the majority of these units cater not to the poorest sectors. Instead, in the 2000s, the public sector produced affordable housing primarily for households that range from lower-middle income to upper-middle income if not for the highest segments as in the case of for-profit revenue-sharing projects.
Table 1: TOKI’s housing projects (2003-2018)
|Housing Project Category||Number of Units|
|Profit-oriented revenue sharing||24,796 + 105,236 (Emlak GYO)|
|Total||718,510 (including Emlak GYO)|
Calculated by the author based on data from TOKI website (March 2018).
The second key feature of AKP’s new housing policy was its departure from the long-established policy of tolerating and partially regularizing informal settlements via exceptional measures such as development amnesty laws (Buğra 1998; Arslanalp 2015). As part of its “urban transformation” agenda, which originally meant the renewal/redevelopment of the physically dilapidated existing building stock but today signifies almost any urban spatial intervention, the new government criminalized gecekondu construction and enacted series of laws that permitted local and central authorities to implement urban transformation projects (UTP). As Erdoğan Bayraktar, former head of TOKI (2003-2011), explained in his book, the initial policy design of the UTPs entailed the demolition of gecekondu and dilapidated historic neighborhoods, the relocation of their “entitled” residents to TOKI’s housing units in metropolitan outskirts under long-term subsidized mortgage arrangements, and the redevelopment of the vacated lands via for-profit projects based on public-private partnerships.
These two pillars of the new housing policy, authorities argued, together promised a virtuous cycle that would boost growth and employment by revitalizing the construction sector, creating physically upgraded and properly planned cities without informal substandard housing, and expanding the supply of affordable formal housing while maintaining the budgetary discipline that the IMF stand-by agreements imposed after the 2001 economic crisis (see Bayraktar 2006; TOKI 2011).  The latter is premised on a self-financing model in which TOKI uses the vast public land holdings it acquires to build and finance its housing projects. Its affordable housing projects, built on public lands, rest on a long-term payment model by new homeowners but are also partially financed by the revenues that TOKI accrues from its profit-oriented projects, including the ones on former gecekondu lands. This has also been how the officials publicly justify the construction of luxury housing projects on public lands that generate immense rents for the private developers.
Table 2: Construction sector indicators during the AKP era (2002-2017)
|New Units in Turkey||GDP Growth Rate (%)||Construction Sector Growth Rate (%)||Construction Sector Share (%)||Real-estate Activities Share ( %)|
Source: Turkish Statistics Institute (TUIK)
Coalitional dynamics of AKP’s housing policy
As part of a broader set of policies and decisions, AKP’s housing policy successfully turned construction into one of the major engines of economic growth in Turkey as indicated in Table 2. Istanbul became the epicenter of this construction boom, which eventually spread across the country. Besides its contribution to overall macro-economic growth and employment, the new housing policy was explicitly conceived as a policy tool that would serve multiple goals reflecting housing policies’ dual character as a social policy arena and as an instrument of economic development. It sought to cater to and reconcile distinct interests in AKP’s social coalition, which must be unpacked to understand the original design of this policy and its subsequent transformations.
The AKP inherited and expanded a social coalition first forged under the Welfare Party (RP) in the 1990s. Unlike its predecessors, the RP successfully expanded the Islamist movement’s social base from peripheral Anatolian provinces to Istanbul and Ankara and built a coalition with support from both provincial business interests and metropolitan urban poor. The latter was a major voter bloc in the RP’s successful capture of Ankara and Istanbul metropolitan municipalities in 1994 and its national electoral victory in 1995 (see Gülalp 2001; Tuğal 2009; Eligür 2010). The AKP dramatically expanded each territorial component of this social coalition. In the periphery, it developed a strong cross-class coalition manifested by the repeated electoral pluralities and majorities it has captured in those provinces, which contributed to its uninterrupted legislative majorities. Meanwhile, it has maintained and further nurtured its strong ties to local business networks (Gumuscu 2010; Buğra and Savaşkan 2012).
Over the course of 16 years, the AKP consistently received high electoral pluralities in Turkey’s two most important metropolitan centers, Istanbul and Ankara. Although it enjoyed cross-class appeal, the party’s following has been greater among the popular sectors, many of whom live in consolidated gecekondu neighborhoods (Tuğal 2009; Eligür 2010; Sayarı 2014). It would, however, be wrong to consider the metropolitan coalition only in terms of electoral constituencies. As Gibson underlines, members of metropolitan coalitions shape the content of policies, ensure their viability, and are indispensable for maintaining governability (Gibson 1996: 342). In contrast to the previous Islamist parties, the AKP also received public and private support from Istanbul-based big business, particularly in its first two terms. Since then, the representatives of big business have refrained from publicly challenging it. More importantly, the party nurtured symbiotic relationships with individual business groups via the distribution of public resources in exchange for increasing control over the private media space via pro-government businessmen, informal campaign contributions, and in-kind donations distributed by the party or party-controlled municipalities or civil society organizations (Esen and Gumuscu 2017; Eder 2009).
Housing policy has been one of the tools AKP utilized to develop, foster, and preserve this social coalition. I argue that TOKI’s affordable housing program primarily benefits the party’s peripheral coalition by: (1) providing opportunities for homeownership among provincial middle classes and, to a lesser extent, lower income populations, and (2) transferring resources to small and medium size contractors in local business networks via public procurements to execute TOKI projects. Construction activity also generates employment in these provinces. Existing research suggested some evidence both for the significance of TOKI investments in AKP’s electoral support (Marschall et al. 2016) and in its success in nurturing pro-government businessmen (Buğra and Savaşkan 2014; Gürakar 2016; Esen and Gumuscu 2017; Demiralp 2018).
The territorial distribution of different types of TOKI projects provides further evidence for this point. To date, TOKI has initiated a total of 2849 projects across Istanbul, Ankara, and the rest of the provinces with some 206, 268, and 2375 in each respectively. The majority of TOKI’s affordable housing projects are concentrated in the peripheral provinces. While Ankara has also received a high share in proportion to its population, Istanbul’s share of the affordable housing lagged significantly behind (see Table 3). This pattern becomes even more explicit when we look at low-income and urban transformation housing projects that target lower-income groups. TOKI constructed 108,946 units out of 145,427 units in the peripheral provinces while constructing only 9,403 units in Istanbul.
Table 3: Territorial distribution of TOKI’s affordable housing projects
|Number of units||Total project costs (TL)||Population (2017)||Per-capita project costs (TL)|
Calculated by the author based on data from TOKI website (March 2018). 20474257
Unlike the peripheral provinces, the state’s housing policy towards Istanbul primarily targeted the maximization of the land values via public-private partnerships. This is observable in the territorial distribution of TOKI’s for-profit revenue sharing projects. 19,195 of 24,796 units produced under this program are located in Istanbul, amounting to total project costs of 2,610,606,568 TL. Additionally, 79 of Emlak GYO’s 104 revenue-sharing upscale real-estate projects are located in Istanbul, while the majority of 75,000 units KIPTAS constructed across Istanbul are also for-profit projects catering to middle and upper classes (see KIPTAS website). Excluded from these figures are those urban transformation projects, such as the Tarlabaşı project in Beyoğlu, implemented by municipal authorities in partnership with private developers (Kuyucu and Unsal 2010; Sakızlıoğlu 2014). These figures also do not take into consideration the zoning decisions that privilege developers, often by violating urban planning codes.
This landscape of investments sheds light on the extent to which the economic logic of rent-maximization has been guiding the housing policy in Istanbul. Such projects primarily satisfy the major business interests in AKP’s metropolitan coalition. They create opportunities for corruption as a major scandal in 2013-2014 revealed (Financial Times 2014). To the extent that revenues raised by such projects are used to fund affordable housing programs in peripheral provinces, they also satisfy the interests of the peripheral coalition.
The original design of the urban redevelopment policy, however, created tensions among the metropolitan popular sectors, another sector in the party’s metropolitan coalition. As described earlier, the urban redevelopment policy’s objective was to clear the centrally located gecekondu neighborhoods, relocate their residents to housing projects in the outskirts, and redevelop the lands via public-private partnerships. The Ayazma-Tepeüstü neighborhood, which was demolished between 2006 and 2008 and later redeveloped as Ağaoğlu My World Europe residential project, is one such example. However, many other initial attempts triggered strong reactions from neighborhood residents, who neither wanted to be displaced nor indebted, and instead demanded in-situ regularization. One of the first TOKI-driven urban transformation projects in Istanbul, Başıbüyük transformation project, was initially revised and then halted after Başıbüyük’s pro-AKP community resisted the project between 2006 and 2009 (Kuyucu and Unsal 2010; Karaman 2014; Arslanalp 2015). Other attempts by IBB or public and private actors in the neighborhoods of Maltepe, Kartal, and Sarıyer also faced strong backlash from residents who organized under local associations, developed connections to other neighborhoods and NGOs, and utilized institutional and extra-institutional tactics (Lovering and Turkmen 2011; Türkün et al. 2014; Arslanalp 2015). Even in neighborhoods where authorities advanced or completed the projects, as in Ayazma, Sulukule or Tarlabaşı, opposition to projects incurred delays, monetary concessions or reputational costs (Kuyucu and Unsal 2010; Kuyucu 2014; Karaman 2014). Perhaps most importantly, in the Maltepe, Kartal, and Sarıyer municipalities, where the question of urban transformation was hotly contested, AKP lost in 2009 municipal elections to CHP. AKP’s new housing policy seemed to have generated rifts in its metropolitan electoral coalition by disgruntling the low-income gecekondu populations.
These grassroots challenges to the urban transformation component of AKP’s housing policy elicited three kinds of revisions from the government. First, the government made ad-hoc discretionary revisions in certain project terms to accommodate local demands and defuse conflict. In Başıbüyük, for example, authorities created new compensation categories for title allotment holders, allowed residents with multiple gecekondu units to be eligible for TOKI units, and turned the project into an in-situ transformation project by building the TOKI units on an empty lot in the neighborhood. Such revisions facilitated the completion of the first stage of the project by making it economically and socially more feasible. However, TOKI nevertheless refrained from initiating the subsequent stages of the project after the CHP took over Maltepe Municipality (Arslanalp 2015). In other cases, like the Ayazma or Kuzey Ankara projects, scholars also found that the authorities discretionarily adjusted the calculations of demolition compensation, postponed the monthly payments of those who failed to pay on time, or relaxed the original restrictions regarding the sale of TOKI units by their inhabitants (Kuyucu 2014; Erman 2016).
A more fundamental policy revision concerned the replacement of demolition-relocation scheme with the principle of in-situ transformation (yerinde dönüşüm). The principle of in-situ transformation implies that “entitled” residents are promised to own units in new buildings that would be built in place of their old neighborhood. In economic terms, it meant that the authorities were now open to sharing part of the economic value that would be generated by redevelopment with at least some of the residents of the transformation zones. Perhaps, the best example to this framework is the Fikirtepe urban transformation project initiated by the IBB in 2011. Instead of directly involving the state as the redeveloper, the municipality designed a transformation project in which the private contractors could directly negotiate with the residents within a zoning framework that incentivizes the maximization of building heights on large subdivisions (Ozdemir and Aydın 2016). Versions of private contractor driven in-situ transformations projects have also been proposed for other neighborhoods in Maltepe, Kartal, and Sarıyer.
A third set of revisions entailed the legal changes that the government enacted to bypass actual and potential challenges from grassroots organization and opposition-governed municipalities. In 2010, the government eliminated the authority of district municipalities to declare transformation zones and concentrated it in metropolitan municipalities. In 2012, the so-called “disaster law” (no. 6306) empowered the recently founded Ministry of Urbanism with authority to declare “risky zones,” which stipulate exceptional powers of redevelopment that even limits individual property rights (see Kuyucu 2017). Despite these powers, a series of risky zone decisions were contested in court by neighborhood associations with favorable decisions (i.e. Derbent, Gaziosmanpaşa). Given the current state of rule of law in Turkey, one could posit that the government has not advanced major redevelopment projects in gecekondu areas because of the high political costs of non-consensual projects targeting AKP’s core constituencies in the post-Gezi context. In contrast to the initial ambitions of policy-makers, most gecekondu neighborhoods in Istanbul have remained in place 16 years into AKP rule despite an increasingly authoritarian regime, albeit under great pressure and with less security. During this period, gecekondu residents successfully lobbied the national parliament in 2015 and 2018 to postpone the annulment of the law 2981, a gecekondu amnesty law enacted in 1984. Ahead of the June 2018 snap elections, AKP even passed a new development amnesty law reminiscent of law 2918 with the promise of formalizing irregular and informal housing yet without relinquishing the goal of urban redevelopment.
Failure to quickly advance the redevelopment of the gecekondu neighborhoods as anticipated is likely one of the reasons why the uninhabited public lands at Istanbul’s metropolitan outskirts have become the location for TOKI’s upscale projects than the affordable housing projects that would host displaced gecekondu residents as initially envisaged. In the central areas, development often targets remaining public assets reserved as gathering places for disasters, public parks, military zones, schools, and even hospitals. As available public lands are depleted, however, maintaining the construction spree in Istanbul will increasingly demand the development of the northern forest zones. Three mega-projects (a third airport, a third bridge, and Canal Istanbul) initiated by the government carry the potential (or are planned) to trigger development in these zones, posing grave threats to Istanbul’s ecology (Paker 2017).
In this research memo, I have emphasized the role of political agency in policy change by interpreting the changes in AKP’s housing policies as balancing acts to manage the tensions in its social coalition across class and territorial lines. Besides depicting a more dynamic picture of an important policy arena, such an approach can also provide a more integrated explanation of housing policy by bringing together the insights of two streams of scholarship that I mentioned in the introduction. One of the conclusions of this preliminary analysis is that Istanbul’s gecekondu populations have been more successful in protecting their core interests than is often recognized in the literature on urban redevelopment. These limits to radical policy change under an increasingly authoritarian regime are also shared by other memos in this volume. Even in authoritarian regimes that are politically much less competitive, regimes often fail to advance dramatic policy changes and concerns in part due to declining popular support for the regime. Besides highlighting the enduring relevance of popular support in authoritarian politics, such concessions or setbacks also expose the policy arenas that constitute the soft belly of these regimes, waiting to be successfully politicized by regime opponents.
 I thank Şehrazat Gülsüm Mart for her meticulous research assistance and the participants of POMEPS Social Policy Workshop for their insightful comments on the earlier versions of this paper.
 On January 1, 2003, the government enacted the “Emergency Action Plan for Housing and Urban Development” (TOKI 2016).
 Calculated by the author based on figures compiled from TOKI’s website.
 Emlak GYO figures are calculated based on the information provided by Emlak GYO website and 2017 activity report. Information on the number of units is missing in 18 projects out of 104.
 Many urban sociologists noted that the payment terms and unit prices of even low-income housing category disqualifies poorest strata (Bartu and Kolluoğlu 2008; Perouse 2013; Kuyucu 2014; Erman 2017)
 See Law no. 5216, 5393, 5366, 5609, 5783. 5216 and 5393 authorized the metropolitan and district municipalities, respectively, to undertake urban transformation projects. 5366 granted the district municipalities the authority to implement restoration or renewal projects in protection zones. 5609 and 5783 granted authority to TOKİ to implement urban transformation and gecekondu transformation projects.
 For an example, see Protocol on Istanbul Maltepe Başıbüyük Urban Renewal Project signed on February 24, 2006.
 Although a nationwide list of urban transformation projects initiated by local or national authorities is lacking, TOKI’s website lists 200 projects across Turkey, which does not enumerate the number of neighborhoods transformed but rather the number of housing projects constructed by TOKI within the framework of urban transformation.
 As a result of its restructuring, TOKI gained control over the sale and zoning of almost all state-owned lands (see law no.5273) which expanded its land holdings tenfold from 16,5 million square meter to 165 million square (Bayraktar, 2006: 206).
 AKP captured the plurality of the votes in 56 out of 81 provinces in 2002, 2007, and 2011 national elections consecutively and received more than 50 percent of the votes on average in 32 provinces and more than 30 percent of the votes on average in 69 provinces (Cinar 2016). During June 2015 election, when it received its lowest national vote share since 2002, AKP still enjoyed pluralities in 56 provinces and majorities in 28 provinces. On November 2015 snap elections, the party got plurality of the votes in 57 provinces and majority of the votes in 38 provinces.
 Calculated by the author based on data provided on TOKI’s website (March 2018).
 Emlak GYO made 7,790,900,000.00 TL profit in total between 2010 and 2017 (Emlak GYO 2017).
 While accommodating the interests of particularly those locals who have houses on large plots or on plots with strategic locations, this design gave up on the basic requirements of planned urbanization. More importantly, the creation of a market in which dozens of contractors and middle men bargain with thousands of residents caused major delays that are still continuing. For an example see http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gundem/fikirtepede-isyan-bakan-ozhasekiden-yardim-istediler-40652649
 See law no. 6639 (2015) and 7139 (2018) and for grassroots mobilization see http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gundem/51-mahallenin-istegi-oldu-imar-affi-yasasi-3-yil-uzatildi-28764222; http://www.sariyerposta.com/gundem/tapulari-icin-tbmmye-gittiler-h56521.html
 See law no. 7143 (2018).
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