Houseboat hopping in Seattle

Get an up-close look at the city's most distinctive neighborhood

Houseboat children
Photo: John Granen

Seattle's floating home community on Lake Union is a rare neighborhood, where homes erupt with exuberant color, quirky details, and lavish gardens, and there's an attitude that nothing is to be taken too seriously.

Even though it's changing ― prices are soaring, and the funky bohemian edge is in danger of evaporating ― it still harbors more character and sheer delight than any land-lubbing neighborhood in the city.

Every other year the Floating Homes Association opens the doors to a dozen or so houseboats, offering a one-day public tour as a fundraiser. (This year it's on September 10.) Since the docks are private property, there's no other way to see the nearly 500 houseboats from land.

Canoes and kayaks, however, are perfect for nosing through the liquid streets anytime. On Halloween, members of the Seattle Sea Kayak Club traditionally go trick-or-treating around the houseboats from the water.

Part of the fun of tooling around the community is the mixture of high and low architecture and design. The elaborate, architect-designed floating homes that you see today didn't come onto the scene until the last 40 years, when the Lake Union houseboats first became sanctioned in the eyes of the city. Before then, sewage had been a serious issue, and wealthy homeowners on the hills above the lake abhorred the tottery shacks at the fringe of their water view. In the 1960s, the city government labored mightily to get rid of them, and in fact managed to evict more than 200 owners.

  

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