Istanbul, Turkey – Hasan Dogan says he is not bothered by the cold and rain as he prepares to spend another night in a park in Istanbul. The fourth-year college graphic design student and dozens of other students have been sleeping on the streets for four nights, part of a nationwide protest movement against what they say is an unbearable rental crisis in Turkey.
“Whether it rains or not, we will stay here until our requests are fulfilled, we don’t have a place to stay anyway,” he told Al Jazeera on Wednesday.
Skyscrapers and luxury condos rise from the streets surrounding the park in the city’s financial district, a testament to long-term economic growth. But the student protests, which happen every night in dozens of cities in Turkey, are a sign of a growing cost of living crisis.
Turkey’s economy was stagnant before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the lira came under frequent pressure, leading to higher prices for consumers.
Inflation has continued to climb this year, and now even basic necessities like housing are priced out of reach for many.
Dogan says that when he started college he paid 750 Turkish lira ($ 87.7) a month to rent an apartment near his campus, but now rents in the same area tend to exceed 2,000 lira ($ 226.4), which makes it unaffordable for him.
With no space in state-run student dormitories, Dogan says he doesn’t have a place to live if he wants to go back to college, as face-to-face classes begin in October for the first time since the pandemic began.
The student protest movement, called “We cannot take refuge” or Barinamyoruz Haraket in Turkish, is calling on the government to take measures such as limiting rents, building more houses and offering more subsidies and scholarships for students.
In response to criticism of the price hike and protests by university students, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters last week that his government was cracking down on the price hike and had built a significant number of dormitories. and increased scholarships for students.
Hundreds of new universities have been established since Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power in 2002, and there are now more than eight million people enrolled.
“We made investments that no other government made before,” Erdogan said. “Now we have dormitories with a capacity of almost a million. Such bedrooms did not exist before us. “
While the protests in Istanbul have been greeted with sympathy (local restaurants have provided dinner and tea) in other parts of the country, students have faced police action and skepticism from the authorities.
Earlier this week, nine students were detained in the capital, Ankara. On Wednesday night, the police detained six more in a park in the city of Eskisehir, and in four other cities intervened to force the camp’s students to disperse.
Deputy Interior Minister Mehmet Ersoy said the protests were an attempt to “mislead the public” and that almost all the students who participated in the protests in Istanbul had houses in which they could live.
“Officials from some cities have come to us and said things like ‘You are not telling the truth, you have no problem finding a home,'” said Kardelen Sahin, 18, a first-year university math student in Istanbul. .
“It’s a bit disrespectful to tell us that. If this was not a serious problem, would we be protesting here, sleeping in the streets? We are human beings, we have the right to housing ”.
For many of the protesting students, unaffordable housing has been the latest in a series of financial problems their families have faced in recent years.
“We have already seen high prices for everything in the pandemic,” Kemal Yilmaz, 23, told Al Jazeera. “When face-to-face education started again, we had to look for housing close to our universities, but found that the rents were too high. Now the situation is serious enough to end up on the streets for our problems to be addressed. “
Yilmaz says rents near her university have more than doubled since before the pandemic, and she lives in a household on a fixed income.
“My father is retired and can only pay the rent for a house. There are many solutions but the government has not taken us seriously, ”he said.
Rents in Turkish cities have risen dramatically during the pandemic, according to official statistics and real estate agents, even as week-long closures and other measures to stop the spread of the virus have hampered the country’s economic machinery.
A September 2021 survey by the Istanbul Municipality found that 95 percent of residents said the rent was too high for them, and about 41 percent had been forced to delay payment since the start of the pandemic. Median rent in the city, the survey found, rose from 1,541 lira ($ 174.4) to 2,561 lira ($ 289.8) during the pandemic, an increase of 66 percent.
Meanwhile, Turkey has experienced painful increases in the prices of consumer goods. The country’s annual inflation rate unexpectedly jumped to 19.25 percent last month, the highest level in more than two years. The Turkish lira has continued to suffer from severe bouts of volatility, falling to a new all-time low this week.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s minimum wage has seen only modest increases and still stands at just 3,577 lira ($ 404.8) a month.
Authorities have implemented temporary economic aid measures, briefly selling subsidized products through municipalities, prohibiting the firing of state employees, offering modest monthly cash donations, and helping pay the wages of some workers.
But Sevval Sener, a Deep Poverty Network social worker who monitors the country’s most vulnerable urban residents, says demand for housing has risen rapidly in cities like Istanbul without rent controls or other government controls, and that his economic measures during the pandemic they have not been enough.
“Contrary to what the authorities want to show, it is seen that poverty has deepened and the social supports provided during the period of the pandemic are insufficient to meet even the basic needs of the people,” Sener told Al Jazeera.
“People who work daily and precarious jobs have lost a large part of their daily income with the pandemic… Although the confinement ended, the problems did not disappear. The electricity and water connections in the houses were cut because the bills were not paid. Those who could not pay the rent were evicted by the owners ”.
Confidence in the construction sector
Critics of the government, in turn, have accused the leaders of being insensitive to the economic problems facing the public.
Last week’s Friday sermon delivered at state mosques urged worshipers to refrain from exploiting the situation and opportunism, echoing President Erdogan’s comments that speculation was at the root of the high cost of living problem.
“We have achieved the highest growth figures in the world. We are breaking record after record in exports. Employment has even exceeded the run-up to the pandemic, ”Erdogan said Sept. 16 during a speech highlighting public assistance for traders affected by the pandemic.
“We also know the problems of high costs of living. By fighting speculators, we will control inflation and avoid exorbitant price increases. “
Countries around the world have been struggling with high inflation this year as companies shed lockdown restrictions, leading to raw material bottlenecks and higher shipping costs.
But government critics say Turkey’s economic crisis is not just due to the pandemic, but to an over-reliance on sectors like construction that are highly vulnerable to currency devaluations.
“In economics, each country has leading sectors that it invests in so that they can attract other sectors and the economy can develop,” Harun Ozturkler, a professor of econometrics at Kırıkkale University, told Al Jazeera.
However, the construction sector, Ozturkler said, is an unsustainable option that does not always contribute directly to the rest of the economy.
Turkish construction companies rely heavily on imported materials, expenses that have risen by about 42 percent in one year, in part because those purchases must be made in increasingly expensive euros or dollars. Earlier this year, many leading construction companies in Turkey announced that they were forced to stop working because of that cost.
But the market, Ozturkler said, has been left with a surplus of about two million homes, priced high enough for contractors to recoup their construction costs.
The government, in turn, has offered low interest rates in recent years to encourage home purchases. Buyers, however, have largely done it as an investment, not a house to live in.
“Only those who had really been investing in housing to rent to others have bought houses, and now they are stuck with houses to rent,” Ozturkler said. “But they paid a lot of money, so it is natural that they demand a high rent.”