Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The story behind Seattle's floating homes!

In Seattle, there are a lot of people who live on the waterfront (in Lake Union). There are two types of floating life shelters: Floating Homes and Houseboats.

Houseboats are one of the most ingenious ways i’ve ever seen of gaming the system. It’s a pretty long but very interesting story. Read on.

Back in the early 1900s, people who could not afford a house on land in Seattle started building simple house-like structures using some logs and put them on Lake Union and started living there. Since the lake was open to the public, anybody was allowed to build such a "floating home" free of cost and live there.

People who lived on such floating homes did not pay any property taxes. On realizing that, a lot of people who lived on land started moving to the lake and naturally it started getting crowded. Since these floating homes did not have proper sewage system, people started to dump all their waste on the lake and hence it started to become a mess.

The City of Seattle then decided enough is enough, and drew up some regulations on how many floating homes will be allowed on the lake and designated certain spots in the lake to be for the exclusive use of floating homes. Since the number of homes were limited and they were always docked, they also decided to hard wire them into the city’s sewer and electricity systems. Thereby, floating homes were started to be considered as regular homes and people needed to pay property taxes on them.


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The floating home used in the movie Sleepless in Seattle

When something becomes “limited edition”, obviously the prices go up. So all of a sudden, what was once the home of people who could not afford a house became a limited edition floating home that started to go for millions of dollars. Also, sewage and electricity were no more an issue.

Now, there were this new class of people who couldn’t afford a home on the land, and obviously not the waterfront as well. So they just started to put a roof on their boats, and started living there. Since they were just regular boats, there was no restriction on how many such boats could be in the lake as long they are registered vessels. It gradually evolved and today’s “boats” look like this:

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You see what they did there? It’s a lake and obviously the city cannot put a limit on the number of boats allowed on the lake. These “boats” are registered as vehicles to the DMV and are authorized to be in the lake wherever and whenever they want. The only restriction being, “they should be able to move on their own”. So all they need is to have a motor underneath that will help them achieve that criteria.

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If you look closely at the above photo, you can see a Honda motor attached to it on the bottom left. It’s very impractical for the city to enforce that rule on a day-to-day basis. So most of these boats, even though they self-propel at the time they are registered to the DMV, they hardly remain so throughout the year.

So today, you can find a lot of such "Houseboats" on the waterfront of Lake Union in Seattle.

P.S.: This was a story that was told to me when i took the Rode The Duck in Seattle. It’s really an awesome tour and i highly recommend taking it if you are visiting Seattle.

P.P.S.: I originally wrote this for this Quora question: "What are the best examples of people gaming the system?"


-Vignesh