For years, people have been docking and living on their boats at Pillar Point Harbor. It’s a permitted activity by the San Mateo County Harbor District in accordance with established boating ordinances.
However, in the past decade or so, the population of live- aboards has ballooned past the 10 percent of total boats the district allows for the practice. Officials say that is due, at least in part, to the housing crisis in the Bay Area as some people turn to living on a boat as a way to find alternative, affordable housing.
The lifestyle has its drawbacks. Often new boat owners are not aware of the costs to maintain a vessel at seaworthy conditions, which can range in the thousands of dollars a year.
The Harbor District and its staff are responsible for maintaining a safe harbor for visitors and others and also to be in compliance with state and federal environmental acts. As a result, staff sometimes displaces someone from a boat in order to comply with the law.
“The intent of the harbor was not to be a solution for affordable housing,” Harbormaster Chris Tibbe said, “… but I understand there is creativity out of necessity.”
About six weeks ago, Tibbe took over his role at the harbor. Though fairly new to the Coastside, he is no stranger to working with boats or managing harbor facilities. He previously was a harbormaster at the Port of Bellingham, Wash.
While Harbor District staff and commissioners both note there is a vibrant live-aboard population that follows all the regulations and complies with safety procedures, there are also those who fail to upkeep their vessels and pay slip or anchor-out fees.
Commissioner Edmundo Larenas, who himself once lived on a boat with his wife at Pillar Point Harbor, said it’s been an ongoing problem.
“I think living on a boat is good, unless it’s being looked at as a low-income living space,” he said.
To ensure all live-aboard boats are complying to the district’s ordinances, each vessel is inspected annually. Unlike some private marinas that require boats to look tip-top, the boats at Pillar Point just need to be seaworthy, operable and have a working marine sanitation device.
“Our requirement for operability is very liberal,” Director of Operations John Moren said.
If someone reports a boat, or staff observes a boat that is questionable, the district can ask the owner to prove operability. Staff then makes sure the boat is not sinking, the engine is functioning, and there is a working marine sanitation device.
“All vessels that are not properly maintained are a danger to the owner and to other vessels in the harbor,” Moren said. During winter storms, boats not maintained can break loose and drift onto shore, requiring staff assistance to tow it back to the harbor.
Owners with boats not up to the District’s codes or who are late in paying slip fees are given a grace period to get the vessel into compliance.
“As a public facility, we try and make every effort to balance enforcement to give non-compliant boaters a chance to voluntarily comply,” Moren said, “but it’s a considerable drain on our resources.”
The situation at Pillar Point Harbor is not unique. Other areas in the Bay Area also have similar issues.
“This is not anything new. With the cost of living so high, regretfully, some believe that living on a boat is a cheaper alternative,” Moren said.
Beyond just the live-aboards that are docked at the harbor, there also several boats that anchor out using moorings in the outer harbor. Since the district is past the capped allowance of live-aboards, when a slip becomes vacant no new permit is authorized until the population gets back to 10 percent, according to Moren.
If boats reach the point where they are no longer salvageable, the district offers a program from the California Division of Boating and Waterways that demolishes the vessel at the harbor. Moren said recently two boats were demolished this way.
“It is really difficult and really expensive to mitigate any damages a boat not maintained can cause,” Tibbe said. “We try to be as accommodating and compassionate, but we also have constraints.”