Keith Barry leads home and car coverage at Reviewed.com, and is a regular contributor to Wired's Autopia blog. His work has been featured in several publications including Car and Driver, USA Today, and the Boston Globe. He frequently rides the 96 bus from his home in Medford, Massachusetts.
Rising costs in nearby Madrid and a lack of available supply have driven families further outside the big city and straight to El Quiñón’s notoriously empty apartments.
In a small town halfway between Madrid and Toledo, a group of older men sit outside a cafe, their half-finished beers getting warm as they debate the day’s news. On the sidewalk, kids head home from the corner store with lime popsicles in hand, and a young couple strolls to the dog park with a terrier in tow.
Such an ordinary scene is only remarkable because of where it’s playing out: El Quiñón, the so-called “ghost town” residential development in Seseña, Spain.
Today, more than 8,500 people are estimated to live in El Quiñón’s sprawling Residencial Francisco Hernando housing complex. Restaurants are bustling, shops sell everything from food to furniture, and a new school is opening in September. Nearly 2,000 people follow the community facebook page, which advertises free movie nights and upgraded high-speed internet.
But back in 2008, only 20 percent of Francisco Hernando’s 13,500 apartments were sold. Set amid manicured gardens, the eerily-uninhabited buildings and empty streets became a worldwide symbol of the Spanish real estate crash. From Top Gear to the New York Times, “Seseña” and “El Quiñón” became bywords for the crisis.
Unsurprisingly, that didn’t sit well with the people who lived there. Nine years later, the real ghosts that linger in this town are those of the journalists who dropped in, took photos, and—in the eyes of residents—unfairly turned a stalled real estate project into a local and national embarrassment.
“The media took us as an example of the housing bubble as if it had only been built in Seseña,” says an El Quiñón resident who was one of the first to move to Francisco Hernando and asked to remain anonymous. “That's why we're a bit reluctant to talk to the press. Many lies and exaggerations were told.”
In a sense, El Quiñón was an easy target. “When the crisis came, nobody came out of it looking good,” says Mark Stücklin, a Barcelona-based market analyst who runs a website about Spanish real estate. When it was over, unfinished developments “became almost symbolic of the insanity of the boom and the harm of the bust,” he says.
But life went on for those who lived there. “Personally, I made many friends,” says the resident, who helps moderate El Quiñón’s Facebook page. “I am married and have two children that I believe have a good place to live here. Here we can walk, run, and ride a bicycle without pollution and the stress of the big city.”
That civic pride doesn’t surprise Christopher Marcinkoski, an associate professor of landscape architecture and urban design at the University of Pennsylvania. “Communities emerge at every scale,” he says. “Just because a place doesn’t reach 20,000 or 35,000 people doesn’t mean that it’s not a community, and that it doesn’t exist socially and culturally as a community.”
Marcinkoski is the author of The City That Never Was, a comprehensive study of “speculative urbanization”—when developers create housing supply in hopes of driving demand.
Residencial Francisco Hernando grew from that exact “build it and they will come” mentality: Its developer, a controversial figure who named the complex after himself and littered it with monuments to his wife and his parents, built spacious apartments amidst a landscape of dog parks and playgrounds, hoping to attract young families who were sick of city life.
Initially, it did—but when the bubble burst, developers across Spain found out just how little demand existed for all the properties that had been built. “No one ever did any market research, finding out what buyers actually wanted,” Stücklin says. “It was a whole witches brew of bad factors like easy credit, bad lending, bad town planning, corruption, and hubris—people thinking this would never end, and they were all real estate tycoons,” he says.
As a result, El Quiñón became a town in search of a community. As the housing market recovered, it slowly found one. Rising costs in nearby Madrid (home prices increased 8 percent in 2016, according to analysts at Servhabitat) and a lack of available supply drove families further outside the big city and straight to the empty apartments of Francisco Hernando.
As a result, utilities were built, buildings were finished, and bus routes were added. Most importantly, residents gained political power. According to El País, it wasn’t long before folks in Francisco Hernando helped elect a mayor who forced the project’s developer to pay the millions he owed the city. In short order, the complex started receiving city services from Seseña, and the new school was built.
But Marcinkoski cautions against using the word “resurgence” to describe El Quiñón’s recent growth.
“Resurgence implies that there weren’t people there and there wasn’t activity there before,” he says. “But certainly there were people there—there were kids and families and activity. But it was viewed through the lens of cranes that had been stopped, projects that had been unfinished, a whole set of other conditions that made a community not look like a place of social life.”
During a visit last month to El Quiñón, some remnants of the bust remained visible: Vacant buildings and empty lots still edged the outskirts of the Francisco Hernando complex, and 1,200-square-feet apartments in one of the newer buildings were listed for under $70,000—less than half what the first owners paid ten years ago.
History aside, however, El Quiñón also seems like a perfectly pleasant—if not unremarkable—suburb. Families gathered on the patios of restaurants and bars, neighbors greeted each other in the aisles of well-stocked supermarkets, and posters advertised upcoming festivals, concerts, movie nights, and available apartments.
El Quiñón has issues that more established small towns can relate to. Residents grouse online about drug sales, petty crime, and a lack of easy access to the major highway that runs within sight of the town. Locals also had to endure a a nearby tire fire last year, which put them back in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Overall, however, people who live in El Quiñón seem to be happy about it.
“They say they will soon make a cultural center with theater and two more parks,” a resident told me. “The one we have, by the way, is awesome and we like to boast about it.”
The park is awesome. Even during a heat wave with temperatures reaching as high as 105 degrees, its gardens were lush and green. A large pond was filled with koi, and I took a photo as they fluttered to the water’s surface. But when I tried to post it on Instagram, I saw just what an uphill battle El Quiñón has to change its reputation: The location was tagged as “Seseña Nuevo (La Ciudad Fantasma)”—ghost town.