After years of watching home prices skyrocket out of his reach, Hank Clay has finally found affordable housing. The one-bedroom home costs him just $200 a month. It comes free of any property taxes.
And it floats.
Christian Yingling, a computer trainer for the Department of Justice in Chantilly, pays about $600 a month in dock fees and $300 toward his boat mortgage to live on "Sea Monkey" at the Gangplank Marina in Southwest, where he has a view of the Washington Monument.
(Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
For the past eight months, Clay, 55, has lived aboard a creaky, 27-foot sailboat on Chesapeake Bay that he shares with a parrot named Jorge. Although the vessel is cramped and frigid in the winter, docking it at Beacon Marina in Southern Maryland is a lot cheaper than his old $800-a-month rent for a tiny studio in Alexandria.
Pushed off land by soaring housing prices, Clay is one of a growing number of Washington area residents making their homes on barges and schooners from the District's Southwest waterfront to Chesapeake Bay inlets in Southern Maryland, marina managers say.
"I know this seems a little bit crazy," said Clay, who is trying to save money to start a business selling wireless Internet devices on eBay. "But it's very affordable."
Known in nautical circles as liveaboards, they include recent college graduates frustrated with high rents and retirees on fixed incomes who struggled to pay property taxes on their former houses. For some, it is the only way to stay off the streets.
"I've been homeless before, and I won't be homeless again," said Donald Littlepage, 44, a sheet-metal worker who moved aboard his boat after a second divorce.
Although there are no official statistics on the number of liveaboards, several area marinas reported a fourfold increase in the past decade. Jamie Phifer, the dock master at Beacon Marina in Solomons, said he had three liveaboards 10 years ago; today there are 14.
"The cost of houses are just outrageous around here," said Phifer, 45, who grew up near the marina at the southern tip of Calvert County, where houses sold for an average of $350,000 last year. That's 79 percent higher than in 2001 and too expensive for Phifer, who recently had to move into an apartment across the river in St. Mary's County. "There's a total lack of affordable housing," he said.
Christian Yingling, 25, realized as much when he decided to move out of his parents' home in Warrenton. Buying a house or condominium was out of his economic reach. And renting an apartment seemed like a pricey way to burn cash without building equity. So in late November, he decided to move aboard Sea Monkey, a green-and-white boat docked at the Gangplank Marina in Southwest Washington.
"At first my parents said, 'Are you crazy?' " said Yingling, who works as a computer trainer for the U.S. Department of Justice in Chantilly. "But when I actually showed them the number, they realized it made economic sense."
For his slip with a spectacular view of the Washington Monument, Yingling pays about $600 a month in dock fees to the marina and $300 toward his mortgage on the 40-foot boat, which he bought from a friend.
David Gohsman, the general manager of Gangplank, which has 87 liveaboards, said there has been a dramatic increase in young people such as Yingling deciding to live on their boats. "It's a much more cost-effective way to live," he said.
Across the country, marinas are reporting growing numbers of people interested in the liveaboard lifestyle, said Linda Ridihalgh, editor of Living Aboard Magazine.
"I think it's become more -- I don't want to say mainstream, that would be a horrible pun -- but it is something that more and more people are doing," she said.
Many people decide to live aboard boats for reasons that have nothing to do with money. Some liveaboards are multimillionaires who cruise their luxury yachts to locales such as the Greek islands or the French Riviera.
Others are not. D.J. Morrison, 57, a retired Federal Protective Service officer, said he lives aboard for $3,800 a year. "Some people pay that much in just property taxes," he said.
Liveaboards acknowledge that the lifestyle has its hardships. Last month, a ferocious storm wreaked havoc with the tides and dropped Alice Snively's boat so low in the water that she couldn't get out of her home for more than 24 hours.
"Sometimes you're looking up at the dock and there is no way you are going to get off your boat," said Snively, 58, who sold her home in Hagerstown, Md., five years ago and moved aboard a boat permanently docked at an Anne Arundel County marina. "That happens about six days a year and, boy, is it inconvenient."
Sharon Kane, 61, said one of the biggest inconveniences is when her husband, a high school physics teacher in Calvert County, wakes up at 5:15 a.m. and has to drive several hundred feet to reach a bungalow where he can shower. "Let's just say it's not that pleasant in the winter," said Kane, who works as a sales clerk at a boat store.
The Kanes used to live in a conventional three-bedroom home in Upstate New York before David Kane was laid off and the couple moved to Southern Maryland. With local prices double or triple the cost of houses in their depressed home town, the Kanes decided to try living aboard. Sharon Kane said they love their waterfront view but detest the way they are treated by many "dirt dwellers."
"People think that we're outside of normal life, like a step above homeless, a step beyond trailer trash," she said. "The land people just don't seem to understand it."
Many marinas don't accept liveaboards. And even as interest in boats as a form of affordable housing grows, some jurisdictions are cracking down on the practice. St. Mary's County prohibits floating homes. Calvert County limits marinas to one liveaboard for every 100 slips, although the rule is not strictly enforced.
"There was some concern that liveaboards don't pay property taxes and that they pollute the bay," said Greg Bowen, the county's director of planning and zoning.
About five years ago, the Gangplank Marina reduced its number of liveaboards from 130 to fewer than 100, saying there weren't enough resources to accommodate all of them. Now some residents are worried that development of the waterfront might eliminate the remaining liveaboard spots. Sprawl, it seems, doesn't stop at water's edge.
"We're all panicked that development will squeeze us out, but what can you do?" said Charlotte Drummond, 50, president of the Gangplank Slipholders Association. "It's a bit like waving a white flag in front of a Mack truck. It's not going to stop."