Houseboats on Lake Union sit among floating homes, which are a whole different kettle of fish.

Legal houseboats in Seattle are a rarity, and according to the city, there will never be more than 215 of them.

In September, Seattle quietly closed its window for houseboats, officially called Floating-On-Water Residences (FOWRs), to be legally recognized by the city. Many long-lived ones had already been certified, but houseboats that either missed the window or didn’t get the official green light are in violation of city code.

These rules don’t apply to floating homes, which are single-family houses wired and plumbed into public utilities that just happen to be floating—like the Sleepless in Seattle home. Houseboats operate more like RVs, with electrical hookups and pump-out systems.

According to the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI), the city closed the window for a couple of reasons: More houseboats existed than they’d anticipated, and as time went on, it got more difficult to verify whether or not they’d met the requirements. Spokesperson Wendy Shark added that the department had seen an uptick in applications the city didn’t feel met the criteria.

While Seattle’s on-water communities have struggled with city regulations for almost as long as they’ve been around, this particular push traces back to 2015 updates to the city’s Shoreline Master Program. State legislation approved in 2014 protected houseboats that were already on the water, and the city had to abide by those protections.

So the city worked out a system: To remain under Seattle’s new rules, houseboat owners had to prove they were afloat and used as a home before then. If the city determined a houseboat met the state definition of a FOWR and the proper timeline, it issued a placard and an identification number.

If a houseboat was denied this recognition by the city, the owner had two options: Appeal to the hearing examiner or lose the home. For SDCI, it’s a natural conclusion of a years-long process. To others, it’s another obstacle in an already labyrinthine process to keep their homes and preserve their way of life.

“It unnecessarily cut off the remaining [houseboats] and made it nearly impossible for them to actually qualify for the FOWR verification,” says Shawn Griggs, a maritime lawyer who frequently represents houseboat owners in cases against the city. FOWRs are scrappy and unique, and can be hard to define.

Griggs still has active cases of clients fighting to keep their houseboats legal—even as the city says they’ve verified all the houseboats they’re going to verify, now 215 total. Griggs has finished 12 separate appeals cases after they were denied FOWR placards, such as a decommissioned trawler the city says was a vessel, not a “structure.” Eight had their appeals granted, while four didn’t win.

He says his active cases against SDCI have become more complicated since the decision to cut off new houseboats—especially since the city introduced stricter language to its requirements toward the end. Houseboat owners had to show lease agreements dating back before 2014, which aren’t required in maritime law, instead of being able to get sworn statements from their former docklords.

“I think it’s a hot mess,” says Griggs. “I actually think that it wasn't legal for the city to close the window.”

The Future of Seattle’s Shoreline

According to SDCI and the Washington State Department of Ecology, houseboats pose a threat to water quality because they typically handle graywater—which is water from sinks and showers, but not toilets—by discharging it right into the water around them, like most regular boats do.

Both agencies say that untreated graywater has a negative impact on surrounding water quality, which factors into limits on houseboats. But there’s no requirement to contain graywater on houseboats unless they’re remodeled to a certain size. Even if they do have a containment system, they don’t get any extra leeway from the city.

Joe Burcar, regional supervisor for our Shorelands and Environmental Assistance Program, says that graywater from houseboats poses a unique challenge because unlike boats, they usually hold still: “A FOWR that is largely static in its moorage can impact nearshore habitat important to migrating salmon.”

Griggs says he doesn’t buy it. Requiring houseboats find another way to deal with graywater, he says, would be a “far more practical solution” than “kicking everyone off the water.”

Hope for Houseboats

“New” houseboats do exist, in a way. A houseboat that’s already been verified as an FOWR can be replaced with a “rebuild” permit, but even with a new owner, the process is intense. Riley Haggard, who runs Haggard Houseboats with his father and builds about one houseboat a year, says the process to get a rebuild permit can take more than six months and run upwards of $10,000.

Options for liveaboard life are dwindling, and city policy is only part of the problem. Only one lender in the city will mortgage a houseboat, and insurance can be a trial. Griggs and Haggard both say moorage is at a premium, which drives up the cost of living. The way the laws are currently written, houseboat owners have to go through that same monthslong permitting process to do necessary repairs like hull replacements.

There is one law that could mix up the fate of Seattle houseboats. A 2020 bill in the Washington State Legislature sponsored by Sen Jamie Petersen will remove some of the permitting requirements for repairing, remodeling, and replacing houseboats if they stay roughly the same size. It limits rent hikes from the Department of Natural Resources, which can have an impact on moorage costs.

The bill was originally vetoed by Governor Jay Inslee, but that veto was overridden earlier this year. Shark says she doesn’t expect the law to impact SDCI’s rules, but Pedersen’s not so sure.

“We didn't say specifically that it was remedial and retroactive, but it is absolutely the case,” says Pedersen, who also introduced the 2014 bill to protect houseboats. “It’s kind of frustrating that the legislature has had to speak three separate times to say, ‘Hey, let the people alone, let them just let them live the way that they're going to live, that they have been living for years.”

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