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CANARY ISLANDS

Spain’s La Palma residents return home to battle volcano ash

For weeks they dreamt of returning to the homes they fled when a volcano erupted on the Spanish island of La Palma. Now that they are finally trickling back to them, their joy is tempered by finding everything covered in a sea of ash.

Ash damaged houses on La Palma
Houses damaged by the lava flow following the volcano eruption, on the Spanish Canary Island of La Palma. Photo: DESIREE MARTIN / AFP

“It’s another world,” said Felix Rodriguez, a 61-year-old bricklayer, as he swept ash from the roof of his house to the terrace below.

He was one of around 1,000 people who were allowed to return to their homes this week, out of a total of 7,000 who were evacuated after the Cumbre Vieja volcano erupted on September 19th, spewing lava and thick plumes of ash into the air.

But like many of the others, he won’t be able to move back into his home right away.

In addition to blocking doors and paths with piles of ash, lava from the eruption damaged pipes, leaving him without running water.

The lava has also blocked a key road in the Aridane valley, forcing area residents to take much longer routes around the island for trips for basic services that used to take just five minutes.

While the red-hot lava miraculously spared Rodriguez’s home, it engulfed the neighbouring cemetery, leaving only a few tombs visible.

Ash from La Palma volcano

61-year-old mason Felix Rodriguez Luis removes ash from the roof of his house. Photo: DESIREE MARTIN / AFP
 

‘Horrible’

Spanish authorities declared the eruption officially over on Christmas Day following 10 days of no lava flows, earthquakes or significant gas emissions.

No injuries or deaths have been directly linked to the eruption on the tiny isle, part of the Canary Islands which lie off Africa’s northwest coast.

But it destroyed over 1,300 homes, mainly on the western side of La Palma, and covered 1,250 hectares (about 3,100 acres) of land, including vineyards and plantations of bananas and avocados.

Carmen Acosta, 57, is one of the lucky few who on Monday was able to sleep in their home again for the first time after living in a hotel for over three months.

Her parents, who are in their 80s, live with her in the bright blue, one-story house that is surrounded by fruit trees and has a sweeping view of the Atlantic Ocean.

“We have a lot of things to clean,” said Acosta, as she was surrounded by plastic bags full of clothes, food and medicines which the family brought with them.

“Even in six months, it won’t be finished. There is a lot of ash, a lot of garbage… It’s horrible.”

In the affected area, mounds of ash engulf orange and apple trees, making them look like shrubs.

‘Joy and helplessness’

Gladys Jeronimo, a recently retired 65-year-old housekeeper, had looked forward to resting after decades of work.

“But for now this is all there is: sadness and cleaning and cleaning,” she said as she swept her porch.

Jeronimo said she felt “a lot of joy and helplessness at the same time”.

“Joy because it’s over, but helplessness because we can’t come back” permanently, since running water has not yet been restored, she said.

Ash damaged houses in La Palma

Retired nursing assistant Maria Zobeida Perez Cabrera, 68, removes ashes from her garden. Photo by DESIREE MARTIN / AFP

Her neighbour Maria Zobeida Perez Cabrera, a 68-year-old caregiver, said her second home, which used to belong to her parents, was “horrible, like a graveyard,” because everything was covered in black ash.

“Everything around us was black, there was no soil, no roof, even the plants were black,” she said as she loaded a wheelbarrow with ash.

Ruben Lopez, a geologist with the Spanish geographical Institute, said winds will blow “much” of the ash into the sea.

While the surface of the lava has cooled, the flows “still store a lot of heat,” he added.

“This will last weeks, even months, and in addition they release gases,” he said.

It will be easier to build on top of lava that has cooled than to remove it, he added.

‘Throwing in the towel’

Like thousands of others, Jorge Diaz Hernandez does not know when he will be allowed to return to his home.

“This is the million euro question,” the 36-year-old said with a shrug at a mountaintop lookout in the municipality of Los Llanos de Aridane.

During the eruption he came regularly to this spot to see if the banana plantation he has run for the past decade had been affected.

It was spared the lava, but Diaz estimated it will take three years to restart production because of the ash damage.

“I am throwing in the towel, I will dedicate myself to something else,” he said.

“I was already tired of the way agriculture and bananas are treated, the low prices, the cost of water, all that. This is the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” he added.

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PROPERTY

Will Spain’s Canary Islands limit sale of properties to foreigners?

There are calls in Spain’s Canary Islands to limit the purchase of properties by non-residents and foreigners, but could authorities legally do this and what are other potential solutions to the archipelago's housing problem?

Will Spain's Canary Islands limit sale of properties to foreigners?

Canary nationalist political party Nueva Canarias wants the regional government to address the large number of property purchases by non-residents in the archipelago, and to an extent limit the number of properties that can be bought by foreigners in the popular holiday islands. 

This comes after Spain’s other archipelago, the Balearic Islands, also started this same debate in November 2022, with the regional Senate agreeing to discuss solutions.

READ ALSO: The plans to limit foreign property buyers in Spain’s Balearics

The Canary Islands are in the midst of a housing crisis, with high rents, a shortage of properties, and an increase in holiday homes.

The main islands of Tenerife and Gran Canaria also suffer from overpopulation.

With an area of 7,447 km2, the archipelago is one of the smallest regions in terms of landmass, but its 2.2 million inhabitants rank it seventh in terms of regional populations in Spain, and in practice this means there’s less space on which to build homes.

In fact, the Canaries have one the highest population densities in Spain and Europe with 302 people per km2. Gran Canaria, where the most populous city of Las Palmas lies, is higher still: 548,41 inhabitants per km2.

“We have a very serious residential problem that can get worse,” said the Nueva Canarias party spokesman Luis Campos, who wants to limit the number of foreigners who can buy property on the islands. 

“If their properties are rented out, it shouldn’t have a negative effect. It could even improve the housing stock in this sense… But another thing would be to buy a flat in a popular neighbourhood and renovate it with the intention of obtaining very high rents from the lease. This can lead to processes of social change and gentrification”, explained Campos.

“Another scenario would be that foreigners buy a home in order to rent it out on Airbnb or for their own seasonal use. In these cases, it would reduce the amount of available housing on the islands,” he added.

In the third quarter of 2022, 33.69 percent of homes in the Canary Islands were purchased by foreigners according to data from Spain’s College of Property Registrars.

This is the highest proportion in Spain, ahead of the Balearic Islands at 31.46 percent and well above the average in the whole of Spain at 15.92 percent.

Buying property in the Canary Islands is seen as a good investment asset for many foreigners due to the relatively lower cost, mild year-round weather, beautiful surroundings, and strong tourist industry.

canary islands limit property purchases foreigners

Las Palmas de Gran Canaria is the archipelago’s most populous city with 378,000 inhabitants. Photo: slavikfi/Pixabay

What these stats don’t tell us, however, is if most of these purchases are by foreign residents or non-residents.

Experts believe there are clues that point to the fact that many non-residents are buying homes, such as the high percentages of mini 40m2 apartments being sold and the high concentration of second homes located in municipalities with the most tourists.

Alejandro Armas, a Tenerife geographer at the University of Leipzig, told El Diario that there should be no difference in whether the houses belong to foreigners or not. For him, the key lies in what the properties are used for, whether they’re being rented out to the local population or only used as tourist rentals.  

So far, it’s not exactly clear what the Nuevas Canarias party wants the exact rules to be, but they have cited examples of the Balearic Islands where they have asked that the rules “prevent second residences from eating up primary residences”.

Is it possible to restrict the number of foreigners buying homes?  

Denmark, Malta and the Aland Islands in Finland all have restrictions on how non-resident foreigners can buy properties in their territories. However, they introduced these before entering the EU and these limits were factored in and accepted by Brussels.

For local authorities in both the Balearic and the Canary Islands it could prove difficult to go against the EU’s legal principles of the free movement of people and capital, experts say.

This means that other potential solutions may be needed. 

Many agree that there are several solutions to the problem that don’t actually involve introducing purchasing limits for foreigners.  

One potential solution would be to increase taxes. The Spanish government is already seeking to amend the wealth tax laws and wants to introduce a new tax for high-net-worth individuals.

This means that non-resident taxpayers whose Spanish real estate assets are worth more than €3 million would have to pay an extra tax.

It is believed that this would deter the highest earners from buying up luxury properties on the islands. The average sale price per square metre in the Canary Islands is higher among non-resident foreigners (€2,522) than among residents (€1,622) and nationals (€1,560), according to the latest figures from Spain’s General Council of Notaries.

Another solution is to follow a measure similar to what has been done in Barcelona to make it very difficult to buy properties to rent out on Airbnb. In the Catalan capital, it’s illegal to rent out your property to tourists on a short-term basis if you don’t have a tourist licence and the City Council is no longer issuing these.  

There are also policies in other countries that serve as examples, such as Ontario in Canada which has added a 15 percent tax for non-residents on to the sale of any home in Toronto and the surrounding area. While in New Zealand, they have also prevented non-resident foreigners from buying real estate from the existing housing stock.  

It’s worth keeping in mind though that a study carried out by American economists found that these last two models did not ultimately lead to a decrease in the number of foreign property owners. 

It remains to be seen what the outcome of the Canary Islands’ study on foreign property owners will be and ultimately what solution they decide upon. 

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