The view from David Murray’s home in Washington is among the best in the city, a panorama of the Washington Channel bookended by the army’s Fort McNair and the Washington Monument. “What more could I ask for?” asks Murray, surveying his surroundings as his shirt flutters in a breeze city dwellers would envy.
Murray, 30, is one of about 140 waterborne householders who live in Washington’s Gangplank Marina, a vibrant, tightknit and quirky community of folks who have given up life on land — “on the hard,” as they say — and maintain year-round homes on the ebb and flow of a waterway.
It might sound like an odd living situation, fraught with inconvenience and seasickness, but talk to anyone who lives at Gangplank and they’ll gladly list the advantages: the great views and neighborhood feel; the proximity to Interstate 395, the subway and a Capital Bikeshare stand; a Safeway grocery within walking distance. All this, but at a lower cost than living on terra firma near the waterfront, where one-bedroom condos average $267,486, according to real estate listing service MRIS — about twice the cost of similarly sized houseboats.
Gangplank boasts the largest live-aboard population on the East Coast, in part because of its supremely convenient location.
The number of live-aboard homes permitted to anchor to one of the Gangplank’s nine 60-foot docks, which have room for more than 300 boats, is limited to 94. There is a waiting list for houseboat slips; about three or four open up a year.
The Gangplank boats run the gamut: loft-style barges and renovated yachts, sailboats and cruisers, even a historic 70-year-old tugboat, with names such as Tycho Brahe, Shannon’s Steal and Reckless Abandon. Their residents garden on sun-drenched decks, float waterlilies alongside their boats, and walk their dogs on the half-mile-long pier. They hold weekly happy hours, and, each fall, open their unique living spaces for public tours.
Washington’s live-aboards are also experts in managing small living spaces and gas-guzzling engines. They know the ins and outs of boat maintenance and are all too familiar with the perils of life on the water, such as staving off a flooded hull. (Rainwater runoff in the basement is a landlubber’s inconvenience, but river water in a houseboat could sink an entire home.)
As with on-land houses, purchasing a live-aboard home often requires borrowing money. But instead of mortgages, buyers take out boat loans, and instead of home insurance, they obtain boating insurance — just as they would for a recreational vessel. Boat loans are available with 10-, 15- and 30-year terms, but interest rates are slightly higher than for mortgages, residents said. Houseboat owners don’t pay property taxes or condo fees, but they do have to pay slip and live-aboard fees. At Gangplank, a monthly slip fee costs $11.50 to $15.50 per foot, depending on location and length of the boat, and the monthly live-aboard fee is $150, which includes a parking space at the marina and scheduled pump-outs of waste through a hose that connects to the Washington’ s municipal sewage system. By comparison, condo fees in the nearby waterfront neighborhood average $492 per month, and property taxes average $1,842 a year.
At Gangplank, running water is supplied by the city, and electricity is provided via hookups to shore power at the marina. Many live-aboards have washing machines and dryers, dishwashers, cable television and wireless Internet.
In 1945, about 25 live-aboards called the Washington Channel, which parallels the Potomac River, home. A Washington Post article from that year described their lives as carefree: “They don’t pay rent on the first. The landlord’s whims aren’t a matter of alarm. They get a fresh breeze with their breakfast. They take their house along on vacations or outings. And they have all the comforts of an earthbound home.”
Little has changed.
“The marina is like its own little neighborhood ...,” said Karen Anderson, 52, a nonprofit worker who lives on a houseboat near Murray on the dock farthest from the security entrance; residents lovingly refer to that dock as “Land’s End.”
“Everybody knows everybody, and everybody is willing to help each other out. You have the sense you’re out in the country, not in the middle of the city,” Anderson said. “At least until the helicopters fly over,” she adds, her voice nearly drowned out by the drone of aircraft in the distance. “It’s really one of D.C.’s best little real estate secrets.”
As with landlubbing homeowners, some boat owners, such as Eve Bratman, are interested in green design. Bratman, 34, a professor of international environmental issues at American University, has been making eco-friendly renovations to her 1979 CarlCraft houseboat for more than a year.
In March 2009, three months after she typed the word “houseboat” into Craigslist on a whim, Bratman moved from a group house in Washington onto the 42-foot vessel.
Transitioning from land to water was easy, she said, even though the boat has only about 400 square feet of indoor living space, including a living room, bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. To keep it uncluttered, she lives by one rule: If one thing comes on, another thing has to go off.
The renovations on Last Resort started in February 2012, when she removed the leaky deck — which essentially serves as the living area’s roof — to repair it before it caved in on her while she slept.
With the help of a boat mechanic and her future mother-in-law, a retired art historian and experienced DIY-er, Bratman raised the deck/roof, replaced the floor joists, extended the bedroom by about 60 square feet to nearly twice its size and added insulation to the thin plywood-and-fiberglass walls. She also installed a 30,000 BTU, marine-safe fireplace in the bedroom.
“The vision is a lot of natural elements. It’s ‘eco-chic,’ if you will,” Bratman said. “We’ve got cork floors, wood accents, continuity of light ... and new Energy Star appliances,” as well as sustainably harvested wood and no volatile organic compound paint.
Bratman won’t get to enjoy any of this. Once she gets married this summer, she and her husband will embark on their “next big dream project”: starting an eco-village in Washington with cooperative housing and shared common spaces.
Despite the investment of time, energy and money, the last of which she hopes to recoup when she sells the boat, Bratman said she has no regrets about moving to Gangplank. “At first I was like, ‘Amazing, a view of the Washington Monument. Water, I love water.’ And then I found this incredible community of people. People would just pop in and say, ‘Permission to come aboard.’ There was always an opportunity for distraction, in the best possible way. The social dynamic is really like a small town. For sure, I’m going to miss it.”