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 graphic design student and dozens of other students have been sleeping on the streets for four nights, part of a national protest movement against what they believe is an unbearable rental crisis in Turkey.
“Whether it rains or not, we will stay here until our requests are granted, we have no place to stay anyway,” he told Al Jazeera on Wednesday.
Skyscrapers and luxury apartments 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 take place every night in dozens of cities across Turkey, are a sign of a growing crisis in the cost of living.
The Turkish economy was in the doldrums before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, with the lira often coming under pressure and driving higher prices for consumers.
Inflation has continued to rise this year and now even basic necessities such as housing are priced out of reach for many.
Dogan says that when he started university he paid 750 Turkish lira ($87.7) a month to rent an apartment near his campus, but now rents in the same area are usually more than 2000 lira ($226.4), making it priceless to him.
With no space in state-run dorms, Dogan says he won’t have a place to live if he wants to go back to college, as in-person classes begin in October for the first time since the pandemic began.
The student protest movement, called “We Can’t Shelter” or Barinamyoruz Haraket in Turkish, is asking the government to take measures such as limiting rents, building more housing and offering more subsidies and scholarships to students.
In response to criticism of rising prices and protests from university students, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week told reporters that 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 have made investments that no other government has made before,” Erdogan said. “We now have dormitories with a capacity of almost a million. Such dormitories did not exist for us.”
While 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 crackdowns and skepticism from authorities.
Earlier this week, nine students were detained in the capital Ankara. On Wednesday evening, police arrested six others from a park in the town of Eskisehir, and intervened in four other towns to force the student camps to disperse.
Deputy Interior Minister Mehmet Ersoy said the protests were an attempt to “mislead the public”, and that almost all students who took part in the protests in Istanbul had houses in which to live.
“Officials in some cities have come up to us and said things like, ‘You’re not telling the truth, you’ll have no problem finding a home,'” said Kardelen Sahin, 18, a first-year math student at the university in Istanbul.
“It’s a bit disrespectful to tell us that. If this wasn’t a serious problem, would we be protesting here, sleeping in the street? We are people, we have a right to housing.”
For many of the protesting students, unaffordable housing is the latest in a string of economic hardships that their families have faced in recent years.
“We have already seen high prices for everything during the pandemic,” Kemal Yilmaz, 23, told Al Jazeera. “When face-to-face education started again, we had to look for accommodation near our universities, but we found the rents too high. Now the situation is serious enough that we have ended up on the streets to deal with our problems.”
Yilmaz says rents near his university have more than doubled since before the pandemic, and he lives in a fixed-income household.
“My father is retired and can only afford one house. There are many solutions, but the government has not taken us seriously,” he said.
According to official statistics and real estate agents, rents in Turkish cities have risen dramatically during the pandemic, even as weeks of lockdowns and other measures to halt the spread of the virus have wracked the country’s economic machinery.
A September 2021 survey by 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. Average rent in the city, the survey found, rose from 1,541 lira ($174.4) to 2,561 lira ($289.8) during the pandemic, a 66 percent increase.
Meanwhile, Turkey has seen painful price increases for consumer goods. The country’s annual inflation rate unexpectedly rose to 19.25 percent last month – the highest level in more than two years. The Turkish lira continued to experience severe volatility, falling to a new low this week.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s minimum wage has increased only modestly and still stands at just 3,577 lira ($404.8) per month.
The authorities have introduced temporary economic relief measures, selling subsidized products for a short time through municipalities, banning the firing of state employees, offering modest monthly benefits and helping to pay the salaries of some workers.
But Sevval Sener, a social worker with the Deep Poverty Network that monitors the country’s most vulnerable urban residents, says housing demand has grown rapidly in cities like Istanbul without rent controls or other government controls, and economic measures during the pandemic have not been enough.
“Contrary to what the authorities want to show, poverty has increased and the social support provided during the pandemic period is insufficient to meet even the basic needs of the people,” Sener told Al Jazeera.
“People who work in daily and precarious jobs have lost a large part of their daily income due to the pandemic… Even though the lockdown was over, the problems have not gone away. 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 landlords.”
Dependence on the construction industry
Government critics, in turn, have accused leaders of being insensitive to the economic problems facing the public.
Last week’s Friday sermon in state-run mosques urged worshipers to refrain from abuse of the situation and expediency, echoing President Erdogan’s comments that the root of the problem of the high cost of living was profit-seeking. .
“We have reached the highest growth rates in the world. We break record after record in exports. Employment has even crossed the pre-pandemic period,” Erdogan said on Sept. 16 during a speech that emphasized public assistance to shopkeepers affected by the pandemic.
“We also know the problems with the high cost of living. By curbing profiteers, we can control inflation and prevent exorbitant price increases.”
Countries around the world are struggling with high inflation this year as companies lifted lockdown restrictions, leading to bottlenecks for raw materials and increased shipping costs.
But government critics say Turkey’s economic crisis is not only due to the pandemic, but also to over-reliance on sectors such as construction, which are highly vulnerable to currency devaluations.
“In economics, every country has leading sectors in which it invests 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 industry is an unsustainable choice, Ozturkler says, that doesn’t always directly contribute to the rest of the economy.
Turkish construction companies rely heavily on imported materials, costs that have risen by some 42 percent in a year, in part because those purchases have to be made in increasingly expensive euros or dollars. Earlier this year, many leading construction companies in Turkey announced that they had to stop working because of those costs.
But the market, Ozturkler said, has a surplus of about two million homes, which are high enough for contractors to recoup their construction costs.
The government, in turn, has offered low interest rates in recent years to encourage the purchase of those homes. However, the buyers have largely done this as an investment, not as a home for themselves to live in.
“Only those who actually invested in housing to rent it out to others bought houses, and now they’re stuck with houses for rent,” Ozturkler said. “But they paid a lot of money, so it makes sense that they demand a high rent.”