Seattle’s Houseboat Neighborhoods Stay Afloat on Seas of Change
by Candace Brown
Busy Interstate 5 runs right through Seattle, Washington, but below the freeway and crowded hills, close to downtown, the surface of Lake Union shines like a misplaced mirror. When the first white settlers arrived in 1851, a forest of giant old growth evergreens surrounded this 571 acre lake, but before long, the loggers’ saws would claim those firs and cedars. Settlement on the shores of Seattle’s bays, lakes, and waterways was soon followed by the appearance of houseboats—houses constructed on rafts and semi-permanently moored to a dock. Originally crude shelters on rafts intended for loggers, fishermen, and other workers, later ones were permanently occupied “floating homes” that ranged from makeshift shacks to regular houses. On Lake Washington, the wealthy built more elegant examples to use as summer homes.
The former Hospitality House from Seattle's Alaska-Yukon Pacific Exhibition
Lake Union to begin to change from a pristine gem between forested hills to a scene of industry, commerce, and even military use. It had a Naval armory and training facility, a steam powered coal gasification plant, shipyards, such as Lake Union Dry Dock Company, which opened in 1919, a car assembly plant, shipping terminals, and more. Throughout all of that, the number of houseboats grew. It reached about 2,000 by the late 1930s and about 2,500 by the end of World War II. Many were occupied by respectable poor or working class, people. Later, the demographic changed to include a more Bohemian crowd—society’s non-conformists, those with radical political views, artists, musicians, and college students.
Older style houseboats
These days, all the houseboats must be connected to public utilities, including sewer. However, in the past, their raw sewage went straight into the water, in addition to industrial wastes already polluting the lake. That fact added to the controversy over their very existence. In the early 1960s, the future of these floating homes seemed grim, as development eliminated their moorages and they were considered to be eyesores and polluters.
As a long time resident of one neighborhood of floating homes on Lake Union’s east side, Jann McFarland has seen it all. In spite of the challenges, the lifestyle is one she and her husband, Sid McFarland, love. They wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
Looking down the dock
She currently works as the office manager for the Floating Homes Association, which was founded in response to the city’s eviction of massive numbers of houseboats. The organization’s mission statement reads: “To protect, preserve and promote the vitality of Seattle's historic floating homes community through education, advocacy, environmental stewardship and collaboration.” At the time the organization was founded, the city’s actions had cut the number of houseboats down to half of what it had been. Many were put in dead storage or trashed. Some were even burned in the middle of the bay. Now, only about 500 remain, and they are still sometimes threatened.
McFarland shared her memories, observations, frustrations and joys with Neighborhood Life in this interview. (Note: McFarland’s use of the word “houses” refers to houseboats.)
The McFarland home.
Candace Brown for Neighborhood Life: Please tell me about the Floating Homes Association.
Jann McFarland: The Association started in 1962. There had been other loosely formed groups prior to that, but in ’62 things were just horrible because that’s when they put in the freeways, the World’s Fair was going on, and the National Oceanic and Atmopheric Administration (NOAA) installation went in down here in southeast Lake Union. There were all these houseboats getting evicted right and left. So they formed it to try to save the houses. That’s also when the city allowed the moorage owners to extend their docks onto the state leased land if they wanted to. They would be able to accommodate something like six additional houses per dock, and a lot of them did that to save houses.
A channel between docks.
We’ve been fighting for a long time. When they formed the Floating Homes Association, homes were almost all on privately owned moorages. Then, in the ‘70s, people started being able to buy their own moorages, and that was great. Now, I think there are about 50 houses that are still on privately owned moorages, but everybody else is co-oped or condo-ed. Our co-op, with three docks, is the biggest co-op on the lake.
NL: Are the co-ops under the umbrella of the Floating Homes Association?
McFarland: The Association doesn’t have anything to do with people getting together and buying property and forming a co-op. The Association, at one time, had an investment committee that was trying to help people get together to buy their moorages if they could, by loaning them money, but it didn’t last very long. For the most part, they supported people. A lot of people were affected by increased rents, but the city had created a monopoly by saying “No more moorages.”
It wasn’t that you couldn’t have a moorage for a while there; you just had to have enough money. Several new moorages have been built since the 1970s and ‘80s. We bought our moorage in 1984. Our moorage owners didn’t even really want to sell but we made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. We paid a lot for it, but the benefits are not having somebody lording over you.
NL: How much of a sense of community do people living in houseboats feel?
Jann McFarland: I think they think of themselves as a community unto themselves, partly because of issues that come up that are specific to the houseboats. But, at least on our side of the lake, they’re also part of the Eastlake community. There are issues that affect people on land and on houseboats equally.
A work party relaxes.
NL: What are some of those issues?
McFarland: Things like crime in the neighborhood and big projects that are going on. For instance, the micro-housing is a big issue. They’re talking about moving the Ride the Ducks tour boats down here, practically in our front yard, and right next to a park. It’s really scary to think of all those duck boats going in and all those little kids swimming. The duck boats can’t see in front of them. That’s gotten everybody’s attention. And then there’s the Westlake bicycle track they’re putting in on the other side of the lake. I’m on the east side, but on the west side, that’s going to take as much as 50% of their parking, which is not just for houseboats. There are businesses over there too. So that’s an issue that affects everybody living over there or going to visit there.
NL: What do you see as your greatest current threats or challenges?
McFarland: Well, parking is a huge, huge issue down here. Say there was a little bungalow for sale, and you wanted to tear it down and make a parking lot; the city wouldn’t let you do that. It isn’t what they visualize for here. Fifteen of us formed a parking co-op and purchased a portion of an existing parking lot across the street. The lot had been used for parking for over 40 years and was already kind of grandfathered in, so they let us do this.
Right now, commuter cars come into our neighborhood and take all our spots. We have zone parking, but it only goes for part of the neighborhood. So people come in and park all day long. We have a new building that’s going to be built near here that is going to have something like 500 employees and 200 parking places. They’re also taking 70 parking places that already exist, just to put shrubbery around it. We’ve lost a lot of other parking that’s gone. It just kind of irritates you.
NL: Has being part of a co-op worked out well?
Container gardens bring a touch of agriculture to the aquatic life.
McFarland: Yes, it has. Our bylaws are pretty good. We have a lot better bylaws than some of the groups. We have rules that cover the usual—pets, boats, remodeling, that kind of stuff. Some of the docks didn’t do that, and they’ve been disappointed because they didn’t have any control over what people were doing, like what they built.
NL: Let’s talk about what other particular challenges you face living in that kind of situation, as far as close proximity to neighbors, etc.
McFarland: Usually people figure out within five years whether or not they belong in this kind of a community. Everybody knows everybody’s business.
NL: Is there something different about living in close proximity in floating homes than there is in a regular neighborhood or apartment building?
McFarland: Well, I think as far as a condo building or apartment building goes, people don’t seem to see each other as much. I don’t know if it’s because every time we come down the dock, everybody looks out their window, or they’re outside and say hello to everybody, but we all know each other. I’ve had people tell me that in a condo building a lot of people don’t even know each other.
Houseboats can sink from excessive snow, if it is not removed.
NL: It’s a good thing, in a lot of ways, but having everyone noticing when you’re coming and going, who you’re coming and going with, how long they stay, etc....
McFarland: Most people don’t care. The kind of people who tend to be down here are the kind of people who just live and let live. If somebody is really picky about having everything their own way all the time, or about their privacy, they’re probably going to move eventually, because they realize it’s just not the life for them
NL: So there’s a real sense of cohesiveness?
McFarland: There pretty much is, although you go through periods of time where you’re sort of like a dysfunctional family. People will disagree. Usually they’re still talking, but they’ll be acting pretty childish about it. It’s just like any place where you have people close together; there’s going to be friction now and then.
When we bought, it was dirt cheap, so the dynamic of the income level has certainly changed. A lot of the older people who have been down here forever bought their houses for maybe five or six thousand dollars. Then, in the ‘70s, they started getting more expensive, and now of course they’re really expensive, for what you’re getting. So now you have all kinds of different income levels. The more people coming in with money, the harder it is for the people who don’t have money to function, because a lot of these people want to change everything. They want everything perfect. But that isn’t the way it works, and they don’t understand a lot of it.
We have three docks, with 52 houses. We’re the biggest co-op, and on our board, we have representatives from each dock. We also have to have a two-thirds majority for anything to pass, but it has to be two of the three from each dock, so two docks can’t gang up on one dock or something like that. Two of the three docks require a two-thirds majority of the total number of owners for a motion to pass. With 18 houseboats on the dock, 12 owners must vote “yes.”
Over the years, there have been a few people who thought they could get away with stuff, but that’s what our bylaws are designed for. We sometimes take a long time to make a decision about something, because we’re hoping that by educating people and making them think about it, they realize maybe they should start thinking about their neighbor instead of just themselves. If it doesn’t work, some of those people are the ones who usually leave.
NL: What about people coming in and tearing down the older homes to build some big fancy box?
McFarland: We really have tried to keep people from building a box. There was a period of time when we had no control over that sort of thing. That’s when the moorage owners had the control. There are several different kinds of historic designations you can have. One houseboat neighborhood allows people to remodel, but encourages them to try to retain the flavor of the community.
NL: I know some have been purchased as second homes. How does that effect things?
McFarland: It kind of defeats the community thing that goes on. When people aren’t there from one day to the next, maybe only two weekends a month, they aren’t as attentive, and if they don’t even come to the dock meetings or participate, that does change things. But some of the people who don’t live there are down there a lot, or they participate heavily, and that’s good. Then you feel like at least they’re trying to be a part.
Most of us prefer to have an owner-occupied moorage, and that’s how our bylaws read. We even discourage rentals because we want the owners to be engaged. At one point, we had something like six rentals on our dock, out of 18. So if you were trying to pass something to curtail rentals, those people weren’t going to vote for it. It gets scary when people who don’t live on the dock are making decisions for people who are.
With us, at least we know we have people from each dock representing us on our co-op board. Our three docks are all part of the same co-op, but each dock is responsible for certain things on their dock. So individual docks make decisions about those kinds of things, and they have dock meetings to decide if they’re going to do something. For example, we just put a new water system in for our dock, and the other two docks had already done it. We had to assess ourselves to pay for that, because it wasn’t the co-op’s problem. I don’t know how that’s going to go, on down the line. Right now we say that anything that’s below the water, the co-op will pay for it, and if it’s above the water the dock pays for it.
A crew of residents prepares to install new stringers
NL: I’m getting the impression that the real action is at the co-op level, not within the Association.
McFarland: The Association is more interested in protecting the community as a whole, and they’ve been very active in the Shorelines Master Program redo. The proposed regulations for floating homes were pretty bad when they started out. They had a citizens’ advisory committee, and there was a person from the Floating Homes Association on that. But there was somebody from every other kind of group too—the dry docks, the boat yards, private homes on waterfront—every kind of interest group. So the Association has been very active in that sort of thing.
We have people come from all over the world, like exchange students. I’ve met architects from Holland and Japan. We’ve taken them around the community, talked to them, and found out about their own floating communities. It’s fascinating. We’ve done travel shows, home and garden shows for TV, and stuff like that. I’ve done scouting. If somebody’s coming in to do a TV show, and they’re looking for something, they’ll contact me, and I’ll find whatever kind of house they want.
We also write letters of support for certain issues outside of our own group, but mostly we really want to protect our own community. A lot of people still think that we’re just a bunch of rich people who live down here and put all our sewage into the water, which of course is not true.
They don’t really understand that a lot of us don’t really have any money, and if they came down and looked at some of the houses in the older communities—where it’s a mixture of big houses and little shacks—it’s obvious that there’s a whole range of conditions of houses and sizes.
A nearby beaver lodge
NL: Hearing you talk about this, it sounds like you’re holding out at the Alamo. You’re surrounded. I hope you can survive.
McFarland: Well, we got the state legislature to pass a bill that allows for the continued use, improvement, and replacement of floating homes. This means the city can’t impose such tight restrictions on us that we can’t remodel, repair, and maintain our homes. I’m not too worried about being evicted any more, even though I’m on state leased land. They’re getting a whole bunch of money from us in taxes.
NL: Do all of the homeowners also belong to the Association?
McFarland: No, but a lot of them do. The membership is higher than it’s been in recent years, but it’s more challenging to keep the membership up. In earlier years, when we had moorage owners, we had more of a reason for banning together. We were 500 houses all fighting, with the Association backing us. The Association is still an entity to be reckoned with. We have a lobbyist who monitors everything that goes on in Olympia, in case the legislature comes up with something that will affect us. We go to Eastlake and other community group meetings, the police precinct meetings, and the Harbor Patrol meetings. We try to stay on top of things that could affect our community.
A dinner raft, being prepared to motor out onto the lake.
Our mission statement now is still pretty much what is was before. It was always to protect the community, but now a lot of it is educating the public on who we are, trying to keep a good public face, if you will. We have a website and Facebook page.
NL: Is the Association the best resource for people engaged in, or contemplating, this kind of lifestyle?
McFarland: Yes. but they can also read about it. Reading the Association’s old newsletters gives you a good feel for the community. They have them online all the way back to ’62, and it shows the crises that have come upon the community and how hard we’ve worked to save our neighborhood.
We get emails that come through, and I’m usually the one who answers them, because I’m usually the one who knows the answers. It’s partly just that I’ve lived down here for so long. I’ve seen a lot of different situations come and go, a lot of people come and go, and lot of different political atmospheres—the years they try to get rid of you and the years when they think you’re okay. The next time you turn around, there’s something else happening that you’ve got to monitor. And like I said, that’s kind of what the Association tries to do. The community really supports the environment and keeping the water clean. We are so aware of our environment. We live with so much wildlife down here. We have beavers, raccoons, muskrats, eagles, great blue herons, and all the different water fowl.
NL: Can you summerize the reasons you love living here?
McFarland: Well, you just walk down the stairs and come down to your house, and it’s like being on vacation year ‘round. It’s just so amazing. I feel so privileged to live down here. I think all of us do. It’s like “How did I luck out on this?”
Photos are provided by and used with the permission of Jann McFarland and the Floating Homes Association
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