Later this week, I’ll be leaving Brooklyn for my native state of Washington. In anticipation of my week-long holiday visit, I thought it would be appropriate to publish a Seattle-centric news item dealing with a perennially thorny topic that I’ve touched on in the past: The cracking down on the Emerald City’s famed — and heavily romanticized — houseboat community.

Back in 2010, I noted that a sweeping new set of shoreline restrictions proposed by the Washington State Department of Ecology would, if passed, ban new houseboats. The reason? To protect aquatic wildlife, specifically salmon, in houseboat-heavy bodies of water such as Lake Union.

According to a recent article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, potential changes to the dated Shoreline Master Program also means that the city will start cracking down on 150 existing houseboats — about a quarter of the city’s entire stock of afloat abodes — that could be illegal under the new restrictions. The  houseboats coming under fire are generally, but not exclusively, large in size, not hooked to a mainland sewer connection, and circumvent city building code. While these houseboats may “look like floating homes,” they are not “moored at legal floating home locations," according to the city. Allegedly code-breaking floating homes have multiplied across Seattle in recent years, mainly on Lake Union, due in part to lax shoreline enforcement and legal loopholes.

Explains the P.I.:

The tension stems from what exactly is a houseboat, which to most people, looks like Tom Hanks' twinkling 'Sleepless in Seattle' home. But houseboats fall into distinct categories, each with their own set of byzantine rules.

Legal houseboats are officially called "floating homes," which are regulated by Seattle building and land-use codes and must have a sewer connection. There's about 480 of them in the city.

Many of the alleged scofflaw houseboats also look like Tom Hanks' house. But their owners consider their homes to be boats, in the same category as yachts and trawlers, whose liveaboards don't have to follow floating-home codes on size, footprint and environmental practices.

With tensions yet again running high amongst the city’s close-knit houseboat community, several city council members have suggested an amnesty program that would help under-fire homeowners achieve legit houseboat status. As the P.I. notes, some houseboaters would have difficulties qualifying for such a program for various reasons. One obstacle, in addition to height restrictions, would be the requirement for grey-water systems, an addition that some fixed-income houseboat residents may not be able to afford. Plus there’s the fact that, according to Department of Ecology manager Geoff Tallent, state law has “no notion of amnesty.”

Additionally, houseboat owners such as Kevin Bagley, are already outright rejecting any sort of amnesty program: “Our opinion is we don't need amnesty. We didn't break the law. We were obeying the law, as it was written ... the law needs to be clarified,” he stated at a recent City Council hearing.

A “distraught-sounding” houseboat resident named Mike also really laid it on really thick at the hearing: "Four years ago, I had a stroke. I bought a houseboat to make my life simpler. I have never done anything wrong. I went through real estate (and) insurance, and now I might lose my house. I will be bankrupt. It would really kill me."


More on Seattle’s ongoing houseboat drama over at the Seattle P.I. included a gallery of floating homes that would most likely be deemed as illegal under the new shoreline restrictions. Houseboaters and landlubbers familiar with this somewhat murky situation on Lake Union: I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

Via [Seattle Post-Intelligencer]

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Seattle's houseboat community unmoored over shoreline restrictions
As Seattle begins cracking down on floating homes, life aboard the city's famed houseboats isn't always the stress-free escape that it's romanticized to be.