Istanbul, Turkey – Hasan Dogan says he is not bothered by the cold and rain as he prepares to spend another night in an Istanbul park. The fourth-year graphic design university student and dozens of other students have been sleeping in the streets for four nights, part of a national protest movement against what they say is an unbearable rent crisis in Turkey.
“Whether it’s raining or not, we will stay here until our requests are met, we do not have a place to stay anyway,” he told Al Jazeera on Wednesday.
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Skyscrapers and luxury condominiums spring up from the streets surrounding the park in the city’s financial district, a testament to long-term economic growth. But the student protests, happening nightly in dozens of cities across Turkey, are a sign of a growing cost of living crisis.
Turkey’s economy was in the doldrums before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, with the lira frequently coming under pressure and triggering higher prices for consumers.
Inflation has kept climbing this year, and now even basic needs like housing are being priced out of reach for many.
Dogan says when he started university he paid 750 Turkish lira ($87.7) per month to rent an apartment near his campus, but now rents in the same area are typically above 2,000 lira ($226.4), making it unaffordable for him.
With no space in state-run student dormitories, Dogan says he has no place to live if he wants to return to university as face-to-face classes begin in October for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
The student protest movement, called “We Can’t Shelter” or Barinamyoruz Haraket in Turkish, is asking the government to take measures like limiting rents, building more housing, and offering more subsidies and scholarships for students.
Responding to the criticism over rising prices and protests by university students, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters last week his government was taking action against price gouging, 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 today more than eight million people are enrolled.
“We made investments that no other government made before,” Erdogan said. “We now have dormitories with a capacity of nearly one million. Such dormitories did not exist before us.”
While the protests in Istanbul have been met with sympathy – local restaurants have provided dinner and tea – in other parts of the country, students have faced police action and scepticism from authorities.
Earlier this week, nine students were detained in the capital Ankara. On Wednesday night, police detained six more from a park in the city of Eskisehir, and in four other cities, they intervened to force the camping students to disperse.
Deputy Interior Minister Mehmet Ersoy said the protests were an attempt to “mislead the public”, and that almost all of the students participating in the protests in Istanbul had homes they could live in.
“Officials in 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 mathematics university student in Istanbul.
“It’s a bit disrespectful to tell us that. If this was not a serious problem would we be protesting out here, sleeping in the streets? We are human beings, we have a right to housing.”
For many of the protesting students, unaffordable housing has been the latest in a string of economic troubles their families have dealt with 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 find housing near our universities, but we found rents too high. Now the situation is serious enough that we have ended up in the streets to have our problems addressed.”
Yilmaz says rents near his university have more than doubled since before the pandemic, and he lives in a household with a fixed income.
“My father is retired, and he can only afford to pay rent on one home. There are many solutions but the government has not taken us seriously,” he said.
Rents in Turkish cities have increased dramatically during the pandemic, according to official statistics and realtors, even as weeks-long lockdowns and other measures to halt the spread of the virus have thrown a wrench into the economic machinery of the country.
A September 2021 survey by the Istanbul Municipality found that 95 percent of residents said rent was too high for them, and some 41 percent had been forced to delay paying it since the start of the pandemic. The average rent in the city, the survey found, increased from 1,541 lira ($174.4) to 2,561 lira ($289.8) during the pandemic, an increase of 66 percent.
Meanwhile, Turkey has seen painful increases in prices for 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 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 sits at just 3,577 lira ($404.8) a month.
Authorities have implemented temporary economic relief measures, briefly selling subsidised produce through municipalities, putting a ban on firing state employees, offering modest monthly cash handouts, and helping pay the salaries of some workers.
But Sevval Sener, a social worker with the Deep Poverty Network which monitors the country’s most vulnerable urban residents, says demand for housing has increased rapidly in cities like Istanbul without rent control or other checks from the government, and that its economic measures during the pandemic have not been enough.
“Contrary to what the authorities want to show, it is seen that the poverty has deepened and the social supports given during the pandemic period are insufficient to meet even the basic needs of the people,” Sener told Al Jazeera.
“People working in daily and precarious jobs have lost a great deal of their daily earnings with the pandemic … Although the lockdown was over, the problems did not disappear. Electricity and water connections were cut in the houses because the bills were not paid. Those who could not pay the rent were evicted by the landlords.”
Reliance on construction sector
Critics of the government have in turn accused leaders of being insensitive to the economic troubles the public is facing.
Last week’s Friday sermon delivered in state-run mosques urged worshippers to refrain from exploiting the situation and opportunism, echoing remarks from President Erdogan that the root of the problem of high living costs was profiteering.
“We have reached the highest growth figures in the world. We are breaking record after record in exports. Employment has even exceeded the pre-pandemic period,” Erdogan said on September 16 during a speech highlighting public assistance for shopkeepers affected by the pandemic.
“We know the problems about high living costs as well. By combatting profiteers, we will take the inflation under control and prevent exorbitant price increases.”
Countries around the world have been wrestling with high inflation this year as businesses cast off lockdown restrictions, leading to bottlenecks for raw materials and higher shipping costs.
But critics of the government say Turkey’s economic crisis is not just due to the pandemic, but to an overreliance on sectors like construction that are highly vulnerable to currency devaluations.
“In economics, every country has leading sectors that it invests in so they can pull in other sectors and the economy can develop,” Harun Ozturkler, professor of econometrics at Kırıkkale University, told Al Jazeera.
The construction sector though, Ozturkler said, is an unsustainable choice that does not always contribute directly to the rest of the economy.
Turkish construction firms rely heavily on imported materials, expenses that have increased by about 42 percent in a year, in part because those purchases must be made in increasingly expensive euros or dollars. Earlier this year, many leading construction firms in Turkey announced they were forced to stop work 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 building costs.
The government, in turn, has offered low interest rates in recent years to encourage buying those homes. The buyers, however, have largely done so as an investment, not as homes for themselves to live in.
“Only those who actually had been investing in housing for renting it out to others have purchased houses, and now they are stuck with houses to rent,” Ozturkler said. “But they paid a lot of money, so it is natural for them to demand high rent.”