November 27, 2012

Seattle’s Battle with Houseboats, Barges and Vessels

Seattle has been famous for its iconic clusters of floating homes, barges, and houseboats for more than 100 years. The well-to-do began building their floating communities on Lake Washington and the working class along Lake Union, Portage Bay, and the Elliott Bay waterfront since the late 19th century. While they have become a symbol of Seattle, these homes have always been an object of controversy.

As early as 1922, the city raised concerns about houseboats and water pollution. In addition, local groups charged that the houseboats impacted the beauty of the shoreline and lowered nearby property values.*

By 1957, City Hall described the Lake Union colonies as slums and tried to zone them out of existence. The issue of sewer hookup has been a constant battle, eventually resulting in the 1964 Portage Bay-Lake Union Sewer Line.*

In 1987, Seattle formalized a Shoreline Management Plan, which established rules for the use of all the town’s waterways. Under this plan the ¬†water-based homes were categorized as follows:

  • Vessels: Functioning boats – structures designed and used for navigation – which sometimes people live in.
  • Houseboats (aka Floating Homes): Official houseboats are registered with the city. They are floating homes that are compliant with building codes and connected to the sewer main.
  • House Barge: Vessels without a means for steering. Similar to a houseboat, but with a motor on the back. House barges have been illegal since 1990 because they are not connected to sewer and pump out gray water into the lake.

This month, the city was updating the 1987 Shoreline Management Plan, and houseboats were on the chopping block. The city was concerned that it was running out of undeveloped shoreline and it was not providing public access to the water. In addition, groups are raising concerns about the impact on wildlife and the environment.

As of this morning, it appears that the showdown over houseboats is over. The City Council’s plan continues to allow people to reside on existing vessels; barges will continue to be regulated; and the licensed houseboats will be permitted as long as as they are to code.

The unique houseboat culture so characteristic of Seattle will continue for now. Rest assured Sleepless in Seattle lovers, Tom Hanks’ Eastlake Floating House is safe. History shows us that what goes around comes around, and residents will have to get used to the city knocking at their buoyant door for years to come.

*Courtesy of