A Brief History of Houseboats

OLD-Houseboat-on-Lake-Washington To understand the history of houseboats, it is necessary to understand the difference between houseboats and floating homes. It is very common to refer to Floating Homes as Houseboats, but this terminology is incorrect (by legal definition). Floating homes are not considered vessels or boats according to state and city statues. The primary difference is in the permanence of the location.

Houseboats are designed to be easily moved (either under their own propulsion, or by towing). Disconnect the electricity, water, and lines, and off you go.

Floating homes are designed to be (more or less) permanently moored and are hard-connected to utilities like electricity, water, sewer, and sometimes gas. To be moved, usually requires professional services to disconnect the utilities. Usually, a floating home is moved into position (or built on-site) and is never moved again.

Let’s Talk Houseboat History

The first houseboats on Lake Union and Lake Washington blurred the lines between houseboats and floating homes. These work shacks – shanty homes were designed to be moved (towed) based on where logging was occurring. Around 1920, people began building these homes as residences and the floating home communities began.

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The existence of true houseboats (designed to be mobile) dates back to the early 1900’s (see picture above). Houseboats were frequently custom built by the owners as an inexpensive way to live on the water. Many were constructed with minimal cruising ability, and some were specifically designed to be towed.

1990 Shoreline Master Plan – Houseboats lived in Seattle, mostly peacefully, until 1990 when the the Seattle Shoreline Master Plan was amended to include a new definition for a “house barge”, and prohibit future house-barges in the City (Ordinance 116051). While it was unclear that the intent was to eliminate houseboats, the ordinance was clearly intended to stop any new house barge (a vessel designed as a residence lacking steering and propulsion). The ordinance did allow live-aboard use on a vessel (that is) “…designed and used for navigation… (SMC 23.60.942)”

At the time (around 1990), there were about 60-70 house barges and houseboats that had steering and propulsion. About 30 of those vessels that lacked steering and propulsion became registered house barges while the remainder chose to remain as vessels, designed and used for navigation (having steering and propulsion) and these became know as “houseboats.”  Many people confuse houseboats and floating homes. The difference is that Houseboats are vessels with quick disconnect utilities, while floating homes are homes floating on the water with permanent utility attachments.  There are currently about 200 houseboats and 508 floating homes.

Houseboats-&-Floating-Homes

November 2007: DPD Begin’s Major Update to SMP – From 1990 until about 2013, the number of  houseboats grew from approximately 35-40 to about 165. In 2008, Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD) began its Comprehensive Update of the Seattle Shoreline Master Plan. The state mandated this update be completed by the end of 2010. DPD assembled a “Citizen’s Action Committee”   and part of this plan included significant revisions to the definitions of houseboats, vessels, and house barges. These proposed changes meant the potential elimination of many of Seattle’s houseboat population. Unfortunately, while floating homes were represented, no representatives of Houseboats were invited to participate on the committee. In 2009 it was discovered by some houseboat owners that the SMP could negatively affect live-aboards, both on houseboats and on recreational vessels. (Continue reading the History of LULA below to see how the story unfolds.)

History of Lake Union Liveaboard Association (LULA)

LULA (Lake Union Liveaboard Association) was formed officially in November of 2009 in response to concerns over proposed regulation changes by Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development. The regulations were part of sweeping changes that were to be implemented as the Shoreline Master Plan for the city of Seattle. The following timeline describes the history of LULA and describes some of the major changes that have been implemented as a result of its member’s efforts.

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October 2009: LULA Formed – As a result of proposals and indications from DPD, LULA was formed to protect the live-aboard population in Seattle waters. LULA is formed with 17 initial members. Critical issues were proposed including increased Insurance requirements for Seattle Marina and proposed changes for Shoreline Master Plan. LULA becomes part of Washington Liveaboard Association. At this formation meeting, the following concerns were expressed;

  • Membership expresses concern over proposed Liability Insurance coverage to $2M for 2 Marinas. Letter to legislators is written and copied to marinas.
  • Membership discusses approach to proposed SMP changes and agrees to research further.

May 2010 First LULA Membership meeting is held at Ward’s Cove. Members were encouraged to invite others to participate. 35 people were in attendance (standing room only!).

  • Election of Board of Directors
  • Election of Officers
    • President: Kevin Bagley
    • Vice President: Sean Conner
    • Secretary: Linda Bagley
    • Treasurer: Keith Lambdin
  • Political Action Committee formed
  • Public Relations Committee formed
  • Insurance issues
    • (Red Shield drops coverage of fiberglass over wood hulls)
    • 2 Marinas propose Liability increase from $500K to $2M
  • Dues are established at $50 per year per boat
  • First version of LakeUnionLiveaboard.com goes live

February 2011: SMP Draft #1 Released by DPD:

1st draft of Seattle’s Shoreline Master Plan is released by the Department of Planning and Development (DPD).  This draft took a shotgun approach to houseboats and live-aboards by limiting all marinas to having no more than 25% of the marina be used for liveaboard purposes. This approach would have meant many marinas would have to evict numerous live-aboard, causing severe consequences. The primary changes in the SMP affecting houseboats and live-aboards included;

  • House Barges were redefined from vessels designed primarily as residences having no propulsion or steering  to vessels designed primarily as residences with or without propulsion and steering.
  • New House Barges were retroactively prohibited back to January of 2011.
  • Live-aboards were limited to 25% per marina and ALL live-aboards were required to register.
  • Live-aboard vessels were defined as a vessel that is used as a dwelling unit for any period of time.

These changes meant the elimination of many of Seattle’s Houseboats and put severe restrictions for living aboard ANY type of vessel. The potential disruption to Seattle’s water based community was enormous so LULA went to work fighting for the live-aboard community.

LULA’s efforts included;

  • A nationwide petition was created that was signed by hundreds of people
  • A massive letter writing campaign to the city council
  • Testimony from live-aboards at city council meetings
  • Negotiations with DPD representatives
  • Lobbying of Representatives, Council Persons, Senators, Legislators, Mayor, and Governor
  • Public relations and social media campaign

October 2011: SMP Draft #2 Released by DPD:

Although progress was made from the 1st release of the SMP, there will still MAJOR areas of concern;

Improvements over Draft #1;

  • Marinas were no longer limited to 25% liveaboards.
  • The definition of a live-aboard vessel was changed to be ‘a vessel that is used as a dwelling unit for more than a total of thirty days in any forty-five day period or more than a total of ninety days in any three hundred sixty-five-day period; or the occupant or occupants identify the vessel or the facility where it is moored as their residence for voting, mail, tax, or similar purposes.

Major concerns;

  • Still contained retroactive re-definition of house barge – Potential elimination of many existing houseboats
  • Only allowed as Non-Conforming Use. If it went away it could not be replaced.
  • No Expansion of any kind above or below the waterline
  • Required sealing of all overboard discharges and full containment of grey-water (Unrealistic as no service could accommodate)

December 2011 – 2nd draft of Seattle’s Shoreline Master Plan is released by the Department of Planning and Development. This version sumarily coverts all Houseboats to House Barges and prohibits those brought into Seattle after January 2011 (Retroactive elimination). Additionally, this version required complete containment of all Grey Water on all houseboats.

  • Emergency meetings are held by LULA to inform the Membership
  • Letter writing campaign begins