It's not a requirement for living in Seattle, but a duck's love of the water helps. The city is sandwiched between Puget Sound on the west and Lake Washington on the east, and overhead there's often rain or a strong hint of it.Skip to next paragraph
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One group of residents who revel in this environment are the houseboat dwellers, whose homes form an American-style Venice along the banks of Lake Union and Portage Bay, smack in the middle of the metropolitan area.
These adjoining waterways are busy with pleasure boats, rowing shells, and seaplanes sharing the space. In summer, there are also tour boats that motor by houseboat avenues that jut from the shoreline.
Many residents have kayaks or other small craft ready to go at a moment's notice. Within minutes, a person can be windsurfing or cruising, soaking up the city and lake scenery.
"I have a view of the city," says longtime resident Jann McFarland, "but I can sit here and look out at the water and feel a million miles away."
The houseboat lifestyle combines a relaxed atmosphere and convenience.
"It's wonderful being so close to everything in the city," says Elizabeth Shaw, a nurse, who has migrated with her husband into the city from suburban Bellevue. "We go out at night and we're home in 10 minutes."
The Shaws, like others who joined the neighborhood in recent years, have put a lot into remodeling their home. Inside it is decorator-magazine attractive, yet like many homes along the docks retains a modest, summer-camp rusticness on the outside.
This is not surprising, given the history of these boats, which float but don't have motors.
"Originally this area was for people you might say were homeless," says Hellen Nelson, who has lived on the lake for 38 years.
Decades before she and her longshoreman husband moved in, the boats were loggers' shacks built on floating logs. Even today, many houseboats sit on logs or drums, although newer ones have concrete floats. The early houseboaters were a resourceful lot, Mrs. Nelson says. They built using lumber floating near the sawmill at the end of the lake.
Cleaning up the waterfront
Whether quaint cottage or chic dreamhouse, houseboats are curiosities. Every other year, some of the showier ones open for tours. They'd make easy summer rentals except that most docks have covenants against such commercialization, says Art Gottlieb, who sells houseboats for Waterfront Properties.
While Seattle is the American city perhaps most associated with houseboats - the movie "Sleepless in Seattle" was partly shot on one - other communities also offer this housing option.
Take Washington. A handful of congressmen, calling themselves the Sea Caucus, live in houseboats on the Potomac River. Other pockets of houseboat activity can be found in Portland, Ore.; Sausalito, Calif.; and the Port of Vancouver in British Columbia.
In Seattle, the state owns and leases a portion of the houseboat docks, and through zoning has essentially capped the number of residences. Today there are about 480 houseboats. At one time there were more than 1,000. Most were lost in the years leading up to the 1962 Century 21 Exposition, when the lake was transformed. A sewer was installed, real-estate projects and pleasure-boating businesses were pursued, and civic leaders acted to rid the waterfront of blight.
Rather than see their community wiped out, houseboaters got together to preserve a way of life. Later, when houseboats became more respectable and moorage owners began to double and triple rents, co-ops were formed.
Co-op and condo fees, says Jeri Callahan, a devoted houseboater, pay for maintenance of common areas, including the dock, water and garbage service, street parking, real estate taxes, and leases.