Houseboat community on public waters closing, will displace more than 70
If you’re driving up Highway 101 in Redwood City towards San Francisco and look east to the bay, for a split second you’ll see a bunch of houseboats. That’s Docktown Marina, home to over 70 people. The boats have been there since the 1960s, but they can’t stay any longer.
I grew up in Redwood City, and I have fond memories of walking my family’s dogs at the marsh lands, having weekend brunch by the water, and watching Fourth of July fireworks over the Bay. But until just a few months ago, I never knew there was a houseboat community, right here, five minutes away from downtown.
“A good portion of the people that live in Redwood City have no idea we're here,” says Docktown resident Pat Black. “Or when they get to come to visit for some reason, they're shocked, absolutely shocked.”
Diverse by definition
As I spend time at Docktown, I discover that people choose to live here for myriad reasons. “Being near the water,” resident Lee Callister says, “I’ve got birds coming around every morning.”
Others choose to live there because it’s low-cost compared to land-based living in the Bay Area. Plus, it’s a particularly diverse community.
Callister explains: “It’s economically diverse, it’s culturally diverse. You've got people having a lot of money running their own businesses, being investment people, doctors, lawyers, and then you've got other people that are barely able to get around. They’re disabled, veterans, they're living down here in tiny little boats because it's one of the few places they can afford to live.”
For James Jonas, living at Docktown is low-impact, with no danger of your home flooding with sea-level rise — a real concern on Redwood City’s Bayside districts.
Sure, boats can spring leaks, or even sink. In fact, when I was hanging out at a Docktown happy hour, a number of people jumped to help a neighbor whose floating home was taking on water and threatening to tip.
One woman tells me, when something like that happens, it’s all hands on deck. “When my house rolled over, I had 50 people there helping me,” she says.
Public commons, private homes
On another visit to Docktown, Pat Black gives me a tour of her floating home. She leads me upstairs and proudly shows off her custom-made teak French doors before taking me out to her porch garden, which she calls her sanctuary.
At 1,400 square feet, it reminds me very much of other Redwood City homes. I can hardly tell the house is actually floating.
Then, Black leads me to her guest room, and points out something that’s completely out of place in this well-kept home: significant water damage in the ceiling.
“Because we don't know the status of what's happening here,” she explains, “I don't want to put in a lot of money to fix my leak, again, so here we are with a mess.”
The status of what’s happening is that the city has informed everybody in Docktown that they need to leave by February 28, 2018.
Why? Well, although many people owntheir homes, they don’t own the land underneath their homes. The land under the water they float on belongs to the public — it’s part of the public trust.
Oversight of the area lies with the city, but it’s technically a commons. Everybodyis supposed to have access to the water, to use for recreation, fishing, or navigating boats.
That means people aren’t supposed to have private property there — but the floating homes at Docktown have been left alone for years.
Ellen Savage, who moved here 15 years ago, says that she wasn’t told anything about the commons or the public trust when she purchased property here.
City Manager Melissa Stevenson Diaz acknowledges people have lived in Docktown for a long time, but says that residents have only had month-to month leases for the duration.
“You can understand why they thought they might be able to stay there indefinitely,” she says.
The lawyer and the leases
Diaz says that for years one man had a permit from the city to operate the marina, and people rented docking slips from him. When he quit five years ago, she says, “the city decided to go
"I am not able to sell my floating home ... There's no place to move it, so you're not going to come and buy it from me to begin with. I've lost my fair market value." —Orlean Chartain
ahead and assume direct responsibility for the marina so that people could continue to live there.”
But she denies that there was any “illegal communication” indicating people “had the right to be there kind of as long as they wished.”
When asked how long the city has known that allowing residences on public trust land violates legal doctrine, Diaz explains that there have been concerns for a number of years, but it wasn’t until recently that the city received definitive confirmation from the state that it was not appropriate to have private homes there on an ongoing basis.
Really, Docktown’s existence has been against regulation since it’s inception, it’s just that no state agency has ever done anything about it.
And, for Redwood City, Docktown never really seemed like it would become a big issue — at least not until somebody made it an issue.
That person was Ted Hannig, a lawyer who describes himself as being honest, hard-working, and dedicated to serving the community. A few years ago he moved into a condominium right across the creek from Docktown. He can see the houseboats from his house. “That’s where I was able to observe what was going on,” he says.
Knowing the marina’s proximity to a wildlife refuge, Hannig says he became concerned about potential contamination caused by houseboats that might release “toxins and other things into the water that would flow to the wildlife preserve.”
He also suspected that Redwood City had known for years that the houseboat community on this marina went against public trust doctrine. He says he reviewed about 25,000 public records about Docktown. Then, he says, when his requests for action went unanswered by the city, he decided to sue under the name Citizens for the Public Trust.
He says he knows it’s easy to make the lawyer the villain in the story, but ultimately he believes he did the right thing for the city, the environment, and even the residents of Docktown.
Docktown residents, like Ellen Savage, disagree. She says Hannig’s being petty, and didn’t like his view of the houseboats, which sit in mud during low tide.
In 2015, the City came to a settlement with Hannig, creating a fund to address environmental concerns, to cover Hannig’s legal costs, and to begin relocation for the residents.
Winners and losers
But there were plenty of people in Redwood City who wanted to tryand find a way for Docktown to stay. Resident Orlean Chartain served on the Inner Harbor Task Force, which was designated to recommend how the inner harbor, which Docktown is part of, would look and feel. “At the end of that process, we were promised a floating community,” she says.
However, she explains, the property they chose for Docktown’s relocation is private, and the owner was not on board with the decision. “So that leaves us stuck,” she says.
Next, the city worked with state and local officials and proposed a transition plan: Docktown residents could stay for 15 more years, but they couldn’t bring in new residents, and they couldn’t rent out their houses. A couple of Docktown residents vehemently objected to that condition.
So residents have had to start thinking about relocating.
“There’s no place for a floating home like this to move,” Chartain says. She’s surveyed all possible marinas, and one of the closest options is in Oregon, but to ship her floating home there would be $300,000. “By the time you got it to Oregon it probably wouldn’t be worth that much,” she chuckles cheerlessly.
“I am not able to sell my floating home,” she continues, “because if I sold it to someone like you, for example, then you would have to move it out of the marina. There’s no place to move it, so you’re not going to come and buy it from me to begin with. I’ve lost my fair market value.”
All the other marinas on the bay with floating homes have been grandfathered in. Existing residents can stay, but no new ones can be accepted.
Chartain says it has felt like a series of broken promises from the Redwood City, which she says should have worked harder to help the community stay.
At a Docktown happy hour, conversations keep going back to the topic of what’s next, who has accepted their relocation packages, and who plans to stick around till the bitter end.
Some residents want the stress to be over, but others are suing the city to try to slow down the process. Others have formed a nonprofit to try to get legislation changed.
Ellen Savage seems to be somewhere in the middle. She says she might have to move to a mobile home community in Santa Cruz. “I'd rather not leave the area but, you know, I have to have a roof over my head. I doubt it would be Docktown.”
For her, Docktown really is more than just a neighborhood. “My life circulates around this community, the yacht club. My best friends are here. The thought that I'm losing all of this is absolutely devastating to me. I never thought at my age, after buying a house, that I would be forced to relocate, and I don't want to. it's heartbreaking to me actually.”
As of now, there aren’t any real proposals to stop the Docktown closure. The move-out deadline for residents is February 28, 2018 — about four months from today.
If you’re interested in visiting Docktown, and want to hear directly from the community, go see Fuse Theater’s original play, “The Unfinished Story of Docktown,” which was created in collaboration with residents through a series of workshops. It’s this Thursday through Saturday, at 8 p.m., at Docktown’s outdoor stage. Tickets are available at fusetheatre.org.