Will the luxury mega-development on the Southwest waterfront unmoor the low-key way of life on DC’s houseboats? These photos offer a look inside one of the largest “live-aboard” communities on the Eastern seaboard, just as the cranes rise.
Story by Carol Ross Joynt. Photographs by Andrew Propp
For six decades, Southwest DC has harbored one of the largest houseboat communities on the East Coast—150 or so men, women, and children who make their homes on a menagerie of vessels at the Gangplank Marina. Their daily lives mirror those of landlubbers in that they commute, keep pets, tend gardens, and share cocktails, but they differ in big ways, too—they don’t have to mow the lawn, they get to live in a prime, central location at affordable rates, and there’s no property tax to pay.
Most of all, these “live-aboards” are bonded by the belief that life is sweeter with water under their feet, the creak of old docks and the jangle of halyards out the portholes, and a sense of freedom they never felt “on the hard.” For most, should they want to move on, they have only to slip the spring lines, pull away from the dock, and follow the compass.
Now big changes are under way that could cast some live-aboards adrift. This past March, local developer PN Hoffman and its real-estate partner, Madison Marquette, broke ground on a roughly $2-billion development called the Wharf that’s meant to transform the gritty, often forgotten Southwest quadrant into a destination with the see-and-be-seen appeal of Georgetown and the youthful vibe of the Navy Yard neighborhood. When construction ends in 2017, the marina will be only one part of a plush swath of apartments, shops, restaurants, and maybe even a distillery.
PN Hoffman and the boat owners struck a deal that allows them to stick around through construction, as long as they put up with periodic relocations of their homes from one part of the marina to another and, of course, the thwack of jackhammers. “I see the live-aboards as central to our waterside neighborhood,” says developer Monty Hoffman, adding that he wants to preserve what he calls the marina’s “bohemian” culture.
But much like longtime residents on higher ground might view gentrification in their neighborhood, the houseboat owners are eyeing the Wharf with both optimism and skepticism. The project will provide a much-needed upgrade to the marina’s facilities but maybe also a hike in slip fees. Will the improvements come at the cost of the eclectic, funky, and, most of all, off-the-grid ambience that residents treasure?
Karen Anderson, head of the Gangplank Slipholders Association, hopes not. Washington does have another live-aboard community—but it’s 15 miles downriver.
Alan Etter commutes from his 45-foot powerboat, The Mayor, to the Commerce Department. He moved to the marina from Northwest DC’s 16th Street in 2001: “Living in an apartment building, you never know your neighbors. It’s the opposite in the marina. We have this thing in common, so completely unattached to the mainstream.”
Number of boats at the marina (altogether they house about 150 people)
Dock fees per foot (residents pay whatever is greater: the size of the slip or the boat)
Monthly “live-aboard” fee, including waste “pump-outs” (utilities are metered)
Monthly cost of basic cable TV
Number of washing machines in shared laundry and shower facilities
Monthly cost of a second parking permit(the first is free)
The Cox family on 52-foot Belle Maren, their home of nine years. Laura and John work at the Washington Waldorf School in Bethesda, which daughters Galena, 15, and Raya, 13, attend. “We’ve had play dates, sleepovers, and birthday parties onboard,” says Laura. At age five, Raya slipped off the dock and into the drink. “She popped up right where she fell in,” her mother says, “and Dad pulled her out.”
When Bob Rose moved to DC in 2012, he was “shell-shocked” by apartment prices, so he opted for a 38-foot Carver boat he calls Digger. The regional business-development manager for Princess Cruises, Rose has adapted well to sea life—and is even a go-to handyman for neighbors. Sometimes “a huge wake or swell comes through and rocks you off the couch,” he says. “If you’re prone to motion sickness, this is not for you.”
Below: Rose in his living room—or “salon,” as boat dwellers call it—working on his engine, which is just below the floor.