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Houseboating on Long Island after Sandy: Neighbors on the water

Houseboat owner Rodrigo Bernal stands on the upper

Houseboat owner Rodrigo Bernal stands on the upper outdoor deck of his home at the Haven Marina in Port Washington. (Aug. 6, 2013) Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

PORT WASHINGTON - When Rodrigo Bernal was looking for a new place to live on Long Island in 2010, he could not find an affordable apartment that would let him bring his dog. So Bernal, a longtime sailor, turned to the water.

He moved into a house barge –– a stationary boat that’s just like a houseboat, only without the motor –– with multiple floors, a spiral staircase and an outdoor patio.

At Haven Marina at the Bay in Port Washington he found a tight-knit community bound by their love of the water and by the challenges of living near it.

“It can get tough sometimes,” Bernal said. “But it’s a great community. People really look out for each other here.”

Long Island’s houseboat community is steeped in the Island’s history, with enclaves moored on both the North and South Shores of Nassau and Suffolk counties. It’s a way of life, though, that’s also under threat from the high property values on Long Island’s coastline, where marinas are increasingly giving way to luxury homes and developments.

Houseboaters have also faced pressure from communities like Southampton, Huntington and Brookhaven, which have restricted or banned new houseboats from joining their marinas.

The price of a houseboat in the Port Washington area ranges from about $125,000 to $150,000, in addition to a mooring fee of about $950 per month and the cost of utilities, said Nick Cyprus, Haven Marina’s dockmaster.

Still, those who stay say it’s worth what is often a difficult way of life.

“[Superstorm] Sandy was very intense,” Bernal said. “We have a lot of crazy stories from that time.”

Bernal, along with his girlfriend Lorena Arcos and their dog Layka, took shelter in their car in Haven Marina’s parking lot during the flooding, but the houseboat they had moved into just days earlier sustained significant exterior damage that he’s still repairing, and it wrecked much of the dock and sunk the boat next to his.

Cyprus, the dockmaster, tore several ligaments in his arm while reeling in a houseboat torn from the marina during the storm. The thing that saved them, he said, was the collective effort of the community.

“It was rough, but we all helped,” he said. “We all made sure everyone, and their boats, were safe. We pulled in boats, repaired lines, whatever needed to be done.”

Even when there isn’t a hurricane to worry about, houseboats’ vulnerability to the elements means that owners must be diligent.

Cyprus said that common damage can range from frozen water lines, which cost about $20 to replace, to cracks in the fiberglass body, which can run houseboat owners up to thousands of dollars to repair in a dry dock.

“You really have to keep up with the exterior,” said Gavin Pike, a real estate agent with Laffey Fine Homes, who has sold several houseboats on Long Island. “Although most marinas have a full-time staff, you have to be a bit handy. And nowadays, there are less and less people willing to do everything themselves.”

Houseboats can’t be insured against sinking either, which is problematic to owners in inclement –– or even fair –– weather. Pike recalled a houseboat that sank in harbor while it was undergoing renovations.

“The person was doing some renovations and went away for the weekend,” he said. “When he came back, he found [the workers] had drilled a hole in the hull.”

What makes a houseboater

Houseboat owners may deal with storms, harsh winters and isolation, but what they get in return is more affordable living and an idyllic way of life with beautiful vistas and convenient proximity to the water.

“When I have free time, I can go fishing any time I want, off the back of my boat,” said Cyprus. “You wake up, you’re on the water, you have a beautiful view.”

Of course, that appeal can bring some people to the marina who don’t quite know what they’re getting into. Anthony Luccaro, who owns Tom’s Point Marina in Freeport, has seen this first-hand.

“There are people that do it for an adventure, and they tend to leave pretty quickly,” Luccaro said.

Cyprus said houseboat owners at his marina have a simple way of determining if a new buyer will stay permanently. “Once they stay a winter, they stay,” he said. Because houseboats are harder to heat than a regular home, Luccaro added, “you often wake up freezing.”

The people that do stay tend to be mostly “artistic types and writers,” said Pike. “They … want to have a very unique and individual lifestyle.”

That said, houseboat owners are a diverse group. At Haven Marina, Cyprus said, tenants include psychologists, butchers, a ship captain, and a bagel shop owner.

Their diversity also shows in the design of their houseboats. Though most range from 1,200 to 1,500 square feet, their decor, like that of their landlocked counterparts, can go from the most austere to outlandishly lavish. Houseboats don’t need permits for construction or renovations, so they can be fullly customized.

“You make them to your taste,” Cyprus said, noting that barges in his marina have amenities including multiple stories, jacuzzis and granite countertops in the kitchen. “One lady [in a neighboring marina] has tiles from all over the world in hers. It looks like a mini-mansion.”

The future of houseboating

Perhaps the greatest risk of houseboat living is the value of the property on which they are moored.

As offers to sell their waterfront property to developers become harder to refuse, worry about eviction from a marina that sells to a private developer.

“There’s always that fear,” Cyprus said. “Where would people bring their boats? You can have it towed to another marina, but that costs thousands. You’re displacing families.”

That concern could become a reality for houseboat owners, who are constantly faced with rumors of developers approaching the marinas where their homes are moored with offers to buy.

And houseboat communities can also face pressure from municipalities, who often support developers’ plans to convert the marinas into higher-priced housing, residents said.

It’s a fear that’s already been realized across the Island, where communities such as Southampton and Brookhaven have severely restricted the addition of new houseboats. Overall though, Pike said he feels that municipalities are generally in favor of maintaining houseboat communities.

“They want to keep and maintain the waterfront,” he said. “If houseboats are gone, you lose a lot of what the town is built upon,” he said. “I can’t see them ever leaving.” 

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