Floating homes are as old as Seattle

The first were built to house the workers of the logging camps. Crude, one-story buildings were built on rafts to follow the logs down the rivers. Later, in the 1920s some houseboats were built as summer homes for the wealthy ringing Lake Washington. On Lake Union, houseboats were built as permanent homes for families of men who lived from the water: fishermen, boatmakers, and a few bootleggers and other questionable types thrown in for color. The houseboats of the 1920s are the “classics”, characterized by their rounded “sprung” roofs and built with the craftsmanship of the boat worker. The real explosion of houseboats started in the 1930’s when people, desperately seeking cheap places to live, collected old cedar logs and debris floating around the lakes and fashioned themselves “temporary” quarters to last out the depression. The vast majority of the historic houseboats still floating today are from this period. By the late 1930s there were over 2000 of them. With the end of the depression, the people living in the houseboats changed. The respectable poor of the 1930s began to move away and were replaced by a more Bohemian crowd, pursuing their life without – and with little tolerance of – either government intervention or the usual social conventions. They were joined by students. “We lived in a houseboat during our college years,” is a common comment today’s houseboaters hear from the most surprising people. But local officials decided in the 1950s that this restless group of malcontents had to go. They were in the business of cleaning up city slums with urban renewal funds, and the houseboats – referred to by one city official as the “cesspool of Seattle” – were high on their demolition list. They were to be replaced by over-the-water apartments and businesses. Government projects were encouraged to build wherever there were houseboat docks.

Association Founded

As their numbers dwindled to less than 1000 houses, the houseboaters began to fight back. For the fight, they formed the Floating Homes Association in 1962. To the complaint that they were a health hazard because of lack of sewerage, they responded with a program of building sewers and connecting to them. To attempts to destroy houseboats for government projects, they responded by lending dock owners money and forcefully lobbying the City Council to ease restrictions to extending docks. By the late 1960’s other urban renewal fights had resulted in legal requirements that governments pay fair market value for condemned housing, and houseboaters threatened to try to enforce those rules for houseboats too. In the meantime the colorful character of houseboats had caught the attention of architects and, to everyone’s surprise, they started to build new houseboats. These houseboats were not built on log rafts but on floats fabricated of cement and Styrofoam. In the early 1970s two threats loomed before the houseboat community. The first was the destruction of a large number of houseboats for an over-the-water apartment building, the Union Harbor Apartments. Unsuccessful in their attempt to stop this development, the houseboaters and the upland community of Eastlake vowed to fight the next proposal to the State Supreme Court. The next proposal turned out to be the infamous Roanoke Reef Apartments. So began a seven-year legal battle in which the community finally emerged victorious. The apartments were stopped, and the half-finished 3-story cement parking garage was torn down to make way for new houseboats. In the meantime, the City Council had agreed to allow houseboats as part of the Shorelines policy, but restricted for practical purposes to their present moorages. Little did the jubilant houseboat colony, now down to its present 480 or so homes, realize that this would be their next great battle for survival.

Moorage Monopoly

In 1976 a houseboat was evicted from its dock, but due to the severe restrictions, the owner could not find a single new moorage. He sold his house to a scrap merchant for $100 rather than pay the County Sheriff $400 to tear it down. The houseboaters were trapped on their current moorages, moorages they typically did not own. By 1977 a few sharpie moorage owners were threatening eviction over everything from the ownership of cats to the color of paint to objections over outrageous moorage increases. The traditionally friendly relations between the houseboat owners, who had often financed the building of the moorage and the sewer line, and moorage owners began to collapse. As eviction threats and moorage hikes sometimes exceeding 400% became commonplace, floating homeowners began to realize that the very environmental and zoning laws which protected their docks from being paved over by apartments and office buildings had handed a virtual monopoly on moorage space to their moorage owners. Everyone had just seen that the fate of an evicted houseboat is the scrap heap. So when a moorage owner made a demand, a houseboater knew to either comply or lose their home. Two strategies for dealing with this problem began to emerge: a campaign by houseboaters to buy their own docks and legislation to provide some curbs on the moorage owners’ power.

Co-ops and Leases

A few cooperative docks had been formed back when houseboats were being evicted to make way for other uses in the 1960s. The people involved had typically just lost their moorage and wanted to ensure their security. These docks eventually became the models for houseboaters who wanted out from under the thumb of the moorage owners’ monopoly in the 1980s. Docks were now either “going coop” or condominiumizing after buying out their moorage owners at the rate of several per year. Many of the most contentious situations on the lake have been defused by this tactic. Where perhaps 40 houseboaters owned their own moorage in the mid-1970s, by the end of 1986 over 190 were expected to control their own sites. This was considered the ultimate solution to the “houseboat problem.”

Equity Ordinance

However, not every moorage owner has been willing to sell. As the relationships between the remaining moorage owners and their tenants deteriorated, the Floating Homes Association appealed to the City Council to legislate some balance into the situation. The result was the first “Equity Ordinance” passed in 1977. This law provided strict controls on evictions and a somewhat toothless “jawboning” procedure for holding moorage increases in line. The most strident moorage owners immediately took the new law to court. In 1980, just a few months after a revised Equity Ordinance was passed to implement mandatory moorage fee arbitration (the jawboning never worked), the first of two State Supreme Court decisions striking down the eviction sections of the Ordinance was announced. Minor adjustments were then made to the new Ordinance to accommodate the Court’s thinking, and things quieted down for a while.

Mass Evictions

The next Supreme Court decision in the spring of 1983 ushered in one of the darkest chapters in the recent history of houseboating. The Court insisted with this decision that moorage owners had the right to change the use of their property and kick the houseboats off their docks in the process. There were to be no legislated guarantees of moorage security. One immediate result of the decision was that several houseboats were evicted and sold for their scrap value. Then after a fruitless summer of trying to negotiate a way for everyone to live together, three moorage owners issued eviction notices to ALL the houseboats on their docks, some 35 homes. Rumors flew, a dock with 52 houseboats was to be next. Once again, the houseboaters organized to save their homes. Their defensive strategy had two elements. A new Equity Ordinance was drafted which acknowledged the latest principles articulated by the Court but which also contained provisions to reduce the ability of moorage owners to use their power of eviction as a threat unless they actually intend to follow through and change the use of their property. This approach turns out to be more effective than it might seem at first because those old environmental and zoning laws make houseboat moorage about the only profitable use for most moorage owners’ land. The other angle of the houseboater’s defense was an anti-trust suit against the three moorage owners who had seemed to act in concert with their mass evictions. By the following spring the new Ordinance had passed, and the three moorage owners had settled out of court with long-term leases for their tenants. Even the 52-houseboat dock had been bought by its tenants and had gone coop. An uneasy peace settled in which prevails to this day (1986).

Quality of Life

Not to be lost in the telling of all this is an appreciation of the unique qualities of life on a houseboat in Seattle. Floating homes are as much a landmark as the Space Needle for many. Of course, everyone is drawn by the water and the peaceful setting in the midst of the city’s urban bustle. Certainly, a running battle for survival for the last 25 years has drawn the residents together as a community in a way unmatched by any other neighborhood in the city. After a few all-night efforts to rescue a neighbor’s boat from the ravages of wind storms or from sinking under a roof covered with snow, and then after the inevitable party to celebrate, those on docks tend to become friends and neighbors who actually care for one another. This is the true reason for the houseboaters’ tenacious defense of their homes and lifestyle. They’re attracted to the lake by the charm of the houseboats, but they stay and fight for the community and its people.

by Beth Means and Bill Keasler, 1986

Bill Keasler passed away on March 17, 2016, at age 69. You can read his obituary here.