Exploding housing costs chase away Turkish talent

By Lauren McKay

Turkish citizens are battling record high rent prices in the midst of a housing crisis spurred on by nationwide hyperinflation. As a result, the country is facing ‘brain drain’.  

Cansu Koc (27) is one of these educated, soon-to-be expats. Koc has had to battle with her landlord to keep a roof over her head for the past five years. When her husband was accepted to a PHD program in Berlin, the newlyweds jumped at the opportunity to leave the country. In fact, the only reason the couple proceeded with their wedding at all was because they secured the opportunity to move to Berlin, where they can afford to live together. 

“We got married just for that – if he wouldn’t be accepted for the PHD abroad, we’d have to stay in our different houses – we couldn’t get married – because our income in total couldn’t afford a place anywhere.” Koc explains that, had the couple wanted to wed and remain in Turkey, they would have had to move to a different city with cheaper rent, “but then we wouldn’t find jobs in academics and probably we would do something else, maybe with minimum wage, and so we still couldn’t find a house. It’s impossible.” 

At 27, the married PHD student – who both studies and works as an assistant at Istanbul Bilgi University – still lives with three roommates. “We are still living with our roommates in different houses,” says Koc of herself and her partner. “My mom called me and said ‘Cansu, where will you live after your wedding?’ and I said ‘The same places – we can’t afford an apartment even for two or three months, so it’s just our life until we move’.”

Beyond living separately from her husband, Koc and her roommates have had to battle their landlord year after year to keep their home in the Kağıthane area of Istanbul. “Almost every year she’s done something to kick us out,” says Koc, recalling this past year when her landlord informed the tenants that she would be selling the house to her relatives, and they would have to leave. However, when the roommates offered to raise the rent from 2,500 Turkish liras to 5,000 liras – an increase of 200% – she accepted. 

When her new rental contract was written up, Koc found out that the landlord had been lying, and the home was already in her relatives’ name. Koc explains that, despite a 2021 government declaration that landlords can only raise the rent by 25% for people who have lived in the same apartment for fewer than five years, landlords can always lie to extract more money from the tenants. “You can always go to the court but it’s too long and it’s not affordable. They can lie. They can find a way to kick you out and raise the rent.”

Koc’s plight resembles that of countless other Turks as they battle nationwide hyperinflation, with citizens facing annual rent increases averaging 157% nationwide according to a report by the Center for Economic and Social Research (BETAM) at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University. This is occurring alongside the plummeting value of the Turkish lira, which has lost 60% of its value in the past two years, and an inflation rate that hit its peak in October 2022 at nearly 86% according to a 2023 report from Statista.  

When asked whether she believes that the deteriorating living conditions in Istanbul are causing brain drain, Koc answers with an emphatic ‘yes’. “Not just the city, the country is losing quality workers now – everyone is looking for a job outside the country.” Referencing the strikes held by Turkish doctors in 2022 protesting low wages, Koc asks “if even the doctors are struggling with rent and higher prices, then what are we going to do?”

Burak Ozdeniz (49), an Istanbul-based real estate agent with more than 10 years of experience, agrees. “This started to happen with the doctors,” says Ozdeniz. He explains that the quality of life for doctors in Turkey has declined significantly due to the cost of living, especially housing, “and they have started to go abroad.” Similarly, “if you’re an engineer or a computer programmer, you don’t get your value in Turkey anymore so we’re seeing them move abroad.”

When asked about the roots of the housing crisis, Ozdeniz cites a confluence of factors, the first being President Erdoğan’s unconventional approach to curbing inflation, which entails lowering interest rates as opposed to raising them in accordance with traditional economic wisdom. “The immediate effect was that inflation started to go up like crazy,” explains Ozdeniz. To make matters worse, “as Turkey is not a very transparent country, the announced inflation is false, and everybody knows it. The gap between the real inflation and declared inflation is so high that owners of the houses want to protect themselves, so they put prices up and up.” 

The realtor explains that the combination of inflation – which is far higher than the numbers published by the Turkish government – plus the influx of foreign buyers who have flooded the market in recent years due to Turkey’s lax immigration laws, has thrown off the balance of supply and demand. “The landlords keep putting prices up, but they are able to sell. When they’re able to sell, they put prices up even more… As a real estate agent, I also started to think that whatever you have, you’re able to sell – at whatever price.” 

“Not just the rent but everything – all the prices – have changed,” says Koc. She describes two of her roommates, twin brothers both studying for their bachelors degrees in Istanbul but hoping to leave the city after graduation: “I mean, when we were students we were always in the clubs, but the only thing they do now is sit at home… they say ‘We can’t go out because it’s too expensive’.” 

Of herself and her husband’s opportunity to leave Turkey, Koc simply says “We’re the lucky ones¨.