17 Dec 18
Santa Cruz Sentinel
Keston and Andrea Ott-Dahl thought they found a way to lick the Bay Area’s housing crisis when they paid $170,000 for a three-story floating home in Brentwood’s Cruiser Haven Marina a year and a half ago, the one they had long admired with its stately porch and big windows.
They eagerly moved out of their busy Antioch neighborhood and settled into the Delta’s more serene setting — until everything started to go wrong.
First they got into a nasty court dispute with the marina’s owner over rent. Then they discovered that Contra Costa County’s zoning restrictions don’t allow floating homes. That forced them to abandon the new home they had sunk their savings into and take up temporary quarters in a nearby Airbnb rental while trying to figure out their next move.
And on Tuesday, what fire officials called a “suspicious” blaze broke out in their floating home, collapsing the interior so it’s now unlivable, according to the couple. Someone was expected to buy the home from them and move it out of the marina, but it’s unclear if that will happen now because it’s currently a crime scene and has been red-tagged by the county.
“It’s devastating,” Keston Ott-Dahl said Wednesday.
Although theirs may be an extreme case, the Ott-Dahls aren’t the only ones whose dream of living in the Bay Area on the cheap is fading. From San Leandro to Redwood City, residents who chose to reside in floating homes and other live-aboard vessels — either because of the allure of a watery world or because they can’t afford homes that cost millions of dollars — have been forced to move in recent years. Their plans capsize amid challenges unfamiliar to landlubbers, including the encroachment of subdivisions, environmental conflicts, marina regulations or legal battles involving waterway access.
Redwood City, for example, has taken steps to rid Docktown Marina of its 70 floating homes. The reason: California once owned the marina property and granted it to the city on the condition it will be available to the public, not reserved for private houseboats and floating homes.
Contra Costa County distinguishes floating homes from houseboats and other live-aboard vessels such as sailboats. It defines a floating home as a “stationary structure in, on, or above the water” that is either permanently grounded on a flotation system and moored into place, or affixed to a permanent structure like a dock, foundation, barge or other “permanent structure.” In contrast, live-aboard vessels are equipped to accommodate dwellers, and houseboats have “either a pontoon or flat-bottomed hull configuration” that make them mobile.
All three types have made the bay and Delta waters their home for decades — sometimes as part of entire dockside communities. Although various city and county rules govern their use, some illegal floating homes or live-aboard vessels have slipped through the cracks for years, officials acknowledge.
“How would we have known the marina wasn’t zoned for this?” Keston Ott-Dahl said late last month as she stared at the piles of boxes she and Andrea had packed up as they prepared to leave their dream house.
She said she tried to look into local floating home rules, but her research only uncovered a vague ordinance that states a floating home or structure “is not allowed at any location in the county unless it meets all applicable zoning, building, health, sanitation, and other applicable provisions of this ordinance code, and meets all applicable provisions of state and federal law.”
Aruna Bhat, the county’s deputy director of community development, said if a zoning district does not explicitly allow floating homes they are illegal, period. None of the zoning districts in Contra Costa allow the homes.
Bhat said enforcement of building codes is generally driven by complaints, so a home like the Ott-Dahls’ may have gone unnoticed if no one ever said anything about it. But in this case it became the subject of a legal tussle.
The floating home has been at the Cruiser Haven Marina since 2008, when then-marina owners Kevin and Sean Hinman bought and moved it from Bethel Island. The home changed hands over the years until the Ott-Dahls bought it in February 2017. Other floating homes have been moored there over the years, residents say. Both Hinman and Dana Matthews, who owned the marina when the Ott-Dahls bought the floating home, say they didn’t know until recently that floating homes were not legally permitted.
When Hinman issued eviction notices to the Ott-Dahls last May, she contended they weren’t paying enough and owed back rent. The Ott-Dahls argued that they had a verbal agreement with Matthews to pay $450 per month, and their dispute turned into a protracted legal battle that is still ongoing.
But a judge last month made at least one thing clear — because of the county’s rules, the Ott-Dahls and their illegal home would have to leave.
Why Contra Costa County has effectively banned floating homes is unclear. Bhat said she believes their permanency makes them unacceptable because they take up water space that many consider public.
“It’s sort of like putting a house in a public park,” she said.
For years the county has been on a mission to clear the Delta of illegal live-aboard vessels, fueled by concerns that they contribute to waterway traffic congestion and pollution. The Delta is both a shipping channel and key source of irrigation water.
The county also spent years abating homes built without permits on islands in the delta — a hunt which could have begun when inspectors went to Salisbury Island to investigate a claim that PG&E overcharged a resident and discovered illegal wiring connecting dwellers to power lines, according to this news organization’s archives.
The cost of removing and cleaning up abandoned vessels, derelict houseboats and sunken barges in Delta waterways has run in the “millions,” said Doug Powell, a formerly retired lieutenant with the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office who now works part time with the office’s Marine Patrol Unit. The county has spent years working with the state to obtain abatement funds.
Powell said he understands why people sometimes turn to floating homes or live-aboard boats when they can’t afford more traditional housing. But for financially struggling people, “having a boat is not a fix,” Powell said. “It’s not cheap. It takes a lot to maintain,” he added. Even if the county legalized them in certain areas, “we would need to have a whole other bureau to handle floating home communities.”
The Ott-Dahls’ home is not one of these abandoned eyesores. Even with a fire-gutted interior, it’s a striking home, painted a deep Cape Cod blue with crisp white trim. They could have moved the house to a different marina, but the cost estimates for moving the house are too steep for the family, even if they could have found a marina to legally place the house.
They were counting on the money from the sale to secure new housing and allow them to move on with their lives, Keston said. After someone set up a GoFundMe account, a generous family arranged for them to stay in an Airbnb rental. They’ll go visit family at the end of the month when the kids are out of school.
After that, the future is unclear.