The pain in Spain falls on ghost towns

Half-vacant Sesena is symptomatic of the economic blight in Spain. Karen Kissane reports from Madrid.

THE blunt brown apartment blocks of Sesena rise into the sky and spread wide along the dry paddocks. Around them, dirt from bare ground whirls in the summer wind, crane towers lie piled like matchsticks, and cyclone fencing surrounds the dream that turned to dust.
Block after block of apartments stand shuttered and empty, monuments to the folly and greed of Spain’s “brick bubble” — the property boom that went bust in 2007. Five years later, only 5000 of the 13,000 homes planned for Sesena are completed, and 2000 of those have yet to be sold.
This is the Spanish paradox: as huge property developments all over the country fade into ghost towns, an average of 159 people a day are being evicted because they can no longer pay their mortgages.
Foreclosures have quadrupled, with the courts granting 530,000 eviction orders between 2008 and 2011. Homelessness has increased as an estimated one in five houses — up to 5.6 million homes — stand empty.
An action group, Stop Evictions, has profiled the typical evictees: Spanish-born, with children in their care, and unemployed. The Spanish jobless rate is now the highest in Europe, 23 per cent, and its youth unemployment is a staggering 53 per cent, the worst in the industrial world. This means many people cannot afford to buy a home even though some houses and flats are now one-third the price they were five years ago in the heady days of cheap credit.
A young mother pushing a pram in the otherwise empty streets of Sesena, half an hour’s drive south of Madrid, says she and those in her block have been lucky; they paid only €72,000 ($A87,000) for their fire-sale apartments.
She would like the landscaping to be finished — “This should be garden,” she says, gesturing at the dirt — but her neighbours in the block opposite have a more serious problem: “They are worried and angry; they paid €200,000, big money.”
The property crash has been devastating to Spaniards who, unlike most Europeans, are as obsessed with home ownership as Australians. Retirees have lost their savings, young couples are stuck with big mortgages on houses they cannot sell, and Spanish banks are overloaded with toxic debt.
This week the government of Catalonia, with a budget as big as Portugal’s, became the second region to ask the Spanish government for a financial bailout. It wants an emergency credit line of €5 billion to help fund payments on its €42 billion debt.
In another barometer of rising fear, private depositors in Spanish banks withdrew more money in August than at any time since the country joined the euro.
Meanwhile Sesena has no chemist, its only public transport is a bus to Madrid once an hour, and the ground floors of all its blocks stand shuttered and blank — the retail businesses that were meant to fill them have never eventuated.
A young jogger living in blocks of nearby townhouses — who, like the mother, did not wish to give his name — says he regrets having bought a home in Sesena: “It’s too quiet. If we want to go out and do things, we have to go to Madrid.”
Then, realising he has just talked down his own property value, he bids a quick farewell and jogs off down a weed-filled street of withered front gardens.

First published in The Age.