Turkish students protest as rent prices skyrocket

A screenshot from Euronews report on protesting students.

Turkish universities will resume in-person classes in October. But as students are preparing to return to schools, they are facing a housing crisis — there are not enough dorms, and rent prices have skyrocketed amid the pandemic, leaving many homeless.

In an effort to solve this crisis, a group of students launched the Movement of the Unsheltered. Their demand is clear, support students by lowering housing and rent prices. In protest, students are also camping out in urban parks in cities across the country.

According to the Council of Higher Education data, there are in total over 8.2 million university students registered for the 2020–2021 academic year in Turkey, while there are only 769 dorms with a capacity for 719,567 students.

There are two types of dorms in Turkey, public and private. While public student accommodations are more affordable, the demand is high, and securing a spot is hard.

“I applied for a room in my school dormitory, but there was no place left,” explained 22-year-old chemistry student Olcay Atik at Bogazici University in an interview with Middle East Eye. Atik was paying 700 Turkish Lira (81 US dollars) for rent in a shared house last year. But this year, Atik's rent has gone up. “I am living in a humid apartment, and I have to pay 1,800 liras (208 US dollars) every month,” he said. The net monthly minimum wage in Turkey is about 2,825 Lira (382 US dollars), and the students are not the only ones hurting from the affordable housing shortage.

Over the last year, apartment rates have increased an average of 55 percent amid double-digit inflation that peaked in August, reaching 19.25 percent.

There are a number of factors that explain the high inflation, according to economist Mustafa Sonmez. These “ossifying dynamics” include a Turkish economy that is heavily dependent on imports; foreign investors who are wary of Turkey's increasing instability; a constantly depreciating national currency; and a central bank that remains under the scrutiny of the President.

Due to these factors, the surge in real estate costs in Turkey is unsurprising. According to reporting by Middle East Eye, Turkey's construction industry relies heavily on imported construction materials that have seen an unprecedented price increase. The outlet reported:

Construction expenses have quadrupled due to [the] high inflation rate and the loss of the Turkish lira, which has depreciated by 45 percent against the US dollar since the coronavirus pandemic began. Some construction companies have recently declared that they will stop working because they can not afford the cost of materials. For instance, one tonne of cement was around 160 lira ($19) last year while it is now 500 TL ($60). The Turkish Statistical Institute (TUIK) has also released numbers outlining that total construction expenses have increased by 42.5 percent in one year.

According to the Center for Spatial Justice, only 2 percent of Istanbul's rented property market is available for minimum income earners. 

To rein in price increases, the government is said to be looking at a new renting model similar to that applied in some parts of Europe,” reported the pro-government Daily Sabah on September 14. The model would involve companies leasing properties under contracts instead of individual owners renting property.

According to Funda Gökgel, a board member from TÜYİSEN (Union of All Dormitory Employers), the housing crisis is unique to this year. In an interview with the BirGun newspaper, Gökgel explained that because the government failed to allocate many benefits during the pandemic, many private dorms were forced to shut down, and more were not added. This gap and lack of control mechanisms have allowed hotels, hostel owners, and property owners to raise prices, leaving people with few options. 

One solution is to open up guest homes owned by state agencies to students and purchase hotel services, suggests Gökgel. “There is the State Hydraulic Works, Police, Military, Teachers housing. At least some arrangements must be made this year. You cannot just open new space in one day in [the] private sector,” explained Gökgel in an interview with BirGun newspaper.

Meanwhile, on September 16, President Erdogan promised to tackle soaring rent costs. “We are well aware of problems about the cost of living caused by inflation. We will prevent excessive price increases on the shelves by placing the inflation under control as soon as possible through lowering costs and fighting opportunists,” President Erdogan said while addressing tradesmen in the central Anatolian city of Kirsehir, according to reporting by Bloomberg.

The leader of the main opposition party Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, proposed a quicker solution — promising to turn the President's palace into a dorm:

[To Erdogan] Until now, I thought of turning your palace into a university. Now, I will think about turning it into a dormitory too! I will give everything stolen from youth back to them. I will compensate for your wrongdoings, and your extravagance.

In the meantime, the Movement of Unsheltered is encouraging supporters to sign a petition “aiming to spur legislative action that would bring down exorbitant rent prices.”

On September 19, while staging a protest at one of the Istanbul parks, the group shared their goals:

We are university students who are going back to their campuses after two years. We are left homeless because of state dormitories’ insufficient capacity and high prices at private dorms. 

If all the opportunities we have of living a decent, humane life are taken away from us, we will create those opportunities ourselves. That’s why we are getting together. To make our voices heard, we are gathering on benches, in your neighborhoods’ parks.

So far, the group has gathered public support and sympathy:

The people of Kadıköy [neighborhood in Istanbul] brought soup to the protesting students today. Even though it's late, citizens continue to support those who claim they cannot find shelter.

So far, the sit-ins have been peaceful, except in Ankara, where nine students were detained, according to the Gazete Duvar.

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