Venice, American-style

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.

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.

Ms. Callahan, who conducts tours for Discover Houseboating, says modern houseboaters are in sync with Seattle's environmental ethic. "They share the area's great respect for the beauty of the outdoors," she says. "We don't appreciate floating beer cans."

Nothing goes overboard, except accidentially. As with virtually all houseboaters, she's had possessions disappear into the drink, such as a bicycle blown off her deck by a severe wind.

Houseboats are connected umbilically to land by flexible water and electric lines that run underneath the docks. This makes them different from self-propelled house barges, the RVs of the waterways. Houseboats don't travel unless ripped from their moorings by a storm.

Gentrification hits the docks

Houseboats have definitely gone upscale in recent decades.

Whereas a houseboat slip might have cost $50,000 a dozen or more years ago, the price is closer to $150,000 today, and this is only the cost to own the aqueous property. The total package, house included, often runs much higher.

The average price of 11 homes Mr. Gottlieb was selling last week was $500,000.

"The people who lived here used to be more working class and I'm working class," Mrs. Nelson observes. "It was more fun then."

Still, on the whole, she doesn't mind the gentrification and calls the people in her co-op "very steady and very nice."

Most people seem to enjoy the opportunities for casual, daily interaction that shared docks and waterways afford. "It's not like communities in which you drive into your garage and walk into your house," says Tanya Seligman. "It's a small community, so people tend to get along."

From the land, the houseboats are shielded by trees and bushes and are not that visible. Residents park their cars and collect their mail at street-level gateways, which lead down a flight of wooden steps to the docks below.

The general public doesn't wander here. But with none of the lawns that separate surburbanites, houseboat owners tend to see each other regularly outside.

"We had some concerns about privacy because things are so close and open," Elizabeth Shaw says. "We can look right across the channel at our neighbors, but that just hasn't been a problem."

The diversity of ages and incomes is one of the appeals for the Shaws. They like the mix that even includes children next door. This is not generally a families-type place, though. It's populated by singles, young couples, empty-nesters, and retirees.

Space is clearly at a premium. The typical houseboat is about 800 square feet, with many of the two-story dwellings at about 2,000 square feet.

There's a tendency for newcomers to want to expand and remake old interiors. To protect against impulsive decisions, some co-ops don't allow major remodeling in the first year of ownership. "It's one of the rules of our dock," Mrs. Shaw says.

Without it, McFarland says, "people will move in and push out their walls so they don't have any deck. A year or two later they say, 'Gee, I wish I had some deck.' "

Less of a party atmosphere

The atmosphere is peaceful, quieter than it used to be in the 1970s, when it was a singles haven and "everybody was so wild and nutty," says McFarland.

Today, things are generally sedate. About the only wildlife are the ducks, beavers, geese, otters, and muskrats that inhabit the lake waters.

The lake is sometimes so calm, Mrs. Shaw says, you can forget your house is floating. Whenever she and her husband take land trips, though, they are reminded that they miss the water. "It's so nice to look out everyday and see it," she says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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