Rentals: Turkish students take to the streets with mattresses to protest housing prices | International

Images of young people sleeping on public benches in Izmir, outside Sakarya University, on the seats of ferries that connect the European and Asian shores of Istanbul and other corners of Turkey have swept across social media in recent days. . They are part of a protest that began in the middle of last month against the difficulties of access to housing or a place in university residences at a time when rents have skyrocketed between 50% and 300% compared to prices there. one year old. Around 100 students were arrested but later released.

“We posted a video in which several students were seen sleeping in a park. The next day, when we were going to do the same, the police had cordoned it off and deployed dozens of officers and an armored vehicle. We asked them if the problem was that 20 students were sleeping outside or the circumstances that forced us to sleep on the street,” explains Mert Batur, one of the spokespersons of the Barinamiyoruz movement (We have no housing) and law student at Istanbul University. “The video had a lot of impact and in the end the police withdrew. Since then, we have been sleeping every night in different parks in Istanbul,” he explains. The protests have been repeated in different ways in 24 of the country’s 81 provinces, according to data from the Ministry of the Interior.

September and October are busy months in the Turkish real estate market. With the start of the school year, academics and teachers are looking for accommodation and landlords tend to take advantage of the increase in demand to raise prices. This year, a conjunction of factors made these increases astronomical: education returned to face-to-face for the first time since the start of the pandemic, with which millions of students who had returned to their places of origin returned to the major cities of the country such as Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, where almost half of the country’s 200 universities are located, in addition to the largest and most sought after. In Istanbul, for example, one million of the eight million who study at university in Turkey are concentrated.

Other countries around the world are facing a price bubble in the real estate market as the normalcy interrupted by the pandemic returns, but “in Turkey, this fact has been made worse by the government’s monetary policy”, says economist Ugur Gürses. In 2020, he explains, the government put pressure on banks, especially public ones, to extend mortgages at all costs. Banks phoned potential customers to convince them to take mortgages at bargain prices (then the benchmark interest rate was at a four-year low of 8.25%, it is now at 18%) , and these potential clients were not necessarily those most in need of housing, but those who had a profile more suited to repaying the credit, that is to say with higher incomes.

Depreciation of the lira

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The volume of loans increased by 40% in a few months and sales exploded. “But since construction costs have increased a lot due to the depreciation of the Turkish lira, the price of new homes has also increased a lot, so these purchases have been directed towards second-hand apartments,” says Gürses. If before the pandemic, second-hand apartments represented just over half of real estate market sales, today they represent 70%. And these were houses whose owners used to rent, which led to a significant reduction in supply on the rental market and a rapid increase in demand.

By law, landlords cannot demand annual rent increases above the official inflation figure (currently 19.25%), but there are no regulations on the starting price of empty properties. The average asking prices for a two-bedroom apartment near a university in Istanbul are between 2,000 and 4,000 liras (about 200-400 euros), and the state scholarships and credits that allow one and a half million d students to study are only 650 lire per month (63 euros).

Another problem is the lack of university residences. In recent years, places in public residences have been reduced (there are less than 700,000, at the cost of around 400 lire per student in rooms for four to eight people) and private ones have increased, which cost two and three times more expensive and, in many cases, they are run by religious brotherhoods close to the party of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “It’s part of the government’s neoliberal project to cut public funding for education and make a business out of it,” Batur said.

Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu responded to the protests by saying most of the participants “are not students” but “members of fringe left-wing organizations”. And even “terrorist groups” like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MLKP, in its Turkish acronym) “or those members of the LGTB (collective) who love me so much”, a- he added. . , using the lesbian, gay, trans and bisexual group’s initials as if it were an armed organization. Erdogan also accused them of wanting to “create a second Gezi”, in reference to the massive youth protests that rocked Turkey in 2013.

Despite everything, the town halls of the ruling party – as well as those of the opposition – opened municipal structures for a month to welcome students in housing difficulty free of charge and the Executive announced the creation of new public university residences with 110 000 new locations, which led to student groups reducing the protests. “We will see if this solution is sufficient, but if not, we will increase our mobilizations”, explains Batur: “The housing problem does not only affect university students. In fact, during our demonstrations, we have been contacted by hundreds of workers and unemployed with the same problem.

Victory and Discontent

For the student movement, it is a small victory that they are not used to savoring in a country that has seen how demonstrations have been banned or dissolved with sticks and gas. And this is not the only one that has happened in recent months. The mobilizations which began at the beginning of the year at the Bosphorus University, the most prestigious in the country, led Erdogan to dismiss the rector whom he himself had hand-picked six months earlier and, although the replacing is not to the liking of academics or teachers, the protest has served to galvanize the student movement and make it realize its strength.

In the corridors of power in Ankara, the prospect of broader Gezi-style youth protests is a nightmare. In the next elections, if held on schedule (June 2023), there will be some six million new voters, and polls indicate that they do not look favorably on an Erdogan who has ruled continuously since 2003 .

Surveys indicate that the level of discontent among young people is higher than that of other segments of the population, as their precariousness increases, as in more developed economies. Until a few years ago, a university degree in Turkey was a sure ticket to a guaranteed job that paid better than the average. It’s not like that.

In addition, two-thirds of the scholarships awarded are in fact credits, “with which a graduate begins his professional life with a debt of at least 30,000 lire”, explains Batur. This forces them to look for lower-paying jobs in a market where there are fewer and fewer job opportunities (30% of graduates are unemployed). “The government is not addressing youth issues. There is a big unemployment problem. Salaries are very low and many graduates head into the minimum wage segment [2.826 liras o unos 280 euros]. Across Turkey, about 40% of workers earn the minimum wage and, moreover, part-time work has increased a lot since the start of the pandemic,” says Gürses. In other words, housing is only the tip of the iceberg of the problems facing Turkish youth.

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