Sex worker Nina relies on an apartment in the Turkish city of Istanbul as a relatively safe space to meet clients. But the 29-year-old is worried about making enough to cover the rent after the landlord doubled the price.
As a surge in inflation fuels a housing crisis in Turkey, LGBTQ+ sex workers like Nina say landlords are forcing them to accept huge rent hikes for fear of being evicted.
Nina, who is non-binary and uses the pronouns they and them, worries about how they will pay the increased monthly rent of 8,000 Turkish Lira ($425) on top of rising bills. Non-binary people do not identify as either male or female.
"There are gas, electricity, water, internet, phone bills," Nina, who asked to be identified by their first name only, said as they sipped a coffee at a cafe in the gay quarter of Taksim.
"I have to work all the time without taking a break, just to pay these. What about the harm it will do to my body, my mental health?"
Turkey's inflation was running at 64% in December, drifting downwards from a 24-year high of 85% in October, in a cost-of-living crisis that has left many struggling to afford basics.
Spike in inflation has sharply pushed up housing costs
Sex workers say job risks mean they must accept rises
Despite price cap, some landlords have tripled rents
In June last year, the government imposed a 25% cap on annual rent rises until July 2023.
But average rents rose by 69% on average across Turkey and 85% in Istanbul in 2022, found research by the Center for Economic and Social Research at Bahcesehir University, based on data from online advert portal sahibinden.com.
LGBTQ+ sex workers said they have little choice but to pay, as it is unsafe to live outside of areas known as gay and transgender-friendly districts.
A ban on prostitution outside of government-certified brothels also means sex workers who operate out of their homes have little recourse to report illegal rent rises.
Only unmarried Turkish women can work in brothels, excluding many sex workers. Nina, who is barred as they are not legally female, said in any case they would want to avoid the "harsh" conditions in government brothels.
Landlords multiply the rents of trans sex workers as they see them as "easy money", said Leyla, a 24-year-old LGBTQ+ sex worker who asked to be identified by a pseudonym.
"Historically, it has always been an issue for LGBT people to rent a place. With the current housing crisis, they have become more vulnerable," said Leyla, who uses they/them pronouns.
ISOLATION AND DISCRIMINATION
At least 62 trans people have been murdered in Turkey since 2008, the highest figure of any country in Europe, according to data collected by Transgender Europe, a network of organisations that advocate for rights.
Advocacy groups say LGBTQ+ people face increasingly open discrimination, fuelled by crackdowns against Pride parades by officials and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric from President Tayyip Erdogan and other senior government figures.
Leyla, who lives In Izmir, the third-largest city in Turkey, said the authorities are trying to force trans sex workers out of the centre by increasing police pressure, sealing their houses and launching gentrification projects.
The Ministry of Interior Affairs did not reply to a request for comment.
Trans sex workers already operate under dangerous conditions, said Leyla, recounting the story of one friend who was recently found beaten unconscious. Working outside their neighbourhoods exposes them to more risk, Leyla added.
Melis Arslan, 26, a member of Red Umbrella (Kirmizi Semsiye), which campaigns for sex workers' rights, said the group had seen a considerable spike in reports of sex workers struggling with housing during the economic crisis.
"Sex workers, who are already paying more than regular tenants, are under risk of eviction, or asked to leave their apartments and are looking for new ones", Arslan said.
Nina fears landlords are seeing the economic crisis as an opportunity to wring yet more cash from an already disadvantaged community.
"The current system is breaking already fragile LGBT people and sex workers, making us more vulnerable," they said.