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Inside Mission Bay's Secretive Houseboat Community

The charmed existence of San Francisco's most unsinkable residents.


Real estate madness be damned! There’s one part of Mission Bay that hasn’t changed in a half-century. Along a quiet dock on the south side of Mission Creek, a motley flotilla of 20 houseboats bob in the tidal waters, remnants of the bohemian no-man’s-land that the neighborhood once was—and an affirmation that certain places may be left untouched by even the biggest economic boom.

“I decided that if I moved into an apartment somewhere, it’d be like moving into a grave,” says Bob Isaacson, an 85-year-old retired engineer who has lived in the Mission Creek houseboat community for more than 30 years. Isaacson and his wife, Ginny Stearns, now occupy their second houseboat (their first one sank), which he designed himself: a two-story, 1,700-square-foot craft with two bedrooms, one and a half baths, and a back deck from which he and Ginny can wave across the water to their new neighbors in the luxury Edgewater Apartments complex. “This is kind of a special place, and it’s rare for anyone to leave,” says Stearns.

The thing is, no one’s leaving. While the Mission Creek Harbor Association (the self-governing group of houseboaters and other boat owners who use the 55 berths on Mission Creek) isn’t exclusive by design, its members acknowledge that their community is one of the most impenetrable in the Bay Area. To get city approval for a new houseboat on Mission Creek is nearly impossible, and good luck buying one: Many of the vessels stay in the same family for generations. When one does go on the market, association members vote on whether or not to approve the new neighbor. “I don’t think there’s another community in town where everybody knows everybody, and so intimately,” says Philip De Andrade, who has served as the group’s president for more than 10 years. “We’re a bit different,” he adds, “from what’s coming around us.”

The houseboat community was relocated from Islais Creek to Mission Creek in 1960. When Isaacson first moved there in the 1980s, he says, “it was mostly fringe people who didn’t belong to the mainstream at all.” Today the creek-dwelling holdouts are watching as luxury condos sprout all around them.

Most houseboaters, however, are upbeat about the boom. The value of their houseboats has risen exponentially (Isaacson bought his first one for $16,800 in the early ’80s; getting in now could run half a million bucks). Transportation and neighborhood amenities have improved, and environmental standards for the creek have gotten stricter. Sarah Davis, a second-generation houseboater, believes that all the development in Mission Bay means a better city overall. “There’s very much a ‘no change’ attitude going on in San Francisco right now,” she says, “and I spend a lot of time explaining to people that change is OK. It’s an exercise in not being prejudiced. All these people coming in have something valuable to contribute.”

While this live-and-let-live attitude comes naturally to the houseboaters, it may be bolstered by the fact that their own habitat has been shielded from development—so far, anyway (when their master lease ends in 2055, they’ll have to negotiate a new deal with the Port of San Francisco). For now, residents plan to stay put. “Where else would I go?” asks De Andrade. Davis, whose 10-year-old daughter is a third-generation houseboater, says that leaving is not an option. “This is my house for the rest of my life,” she says. Isaacson, too, intends to stay forever. “When I die,” he says, “they’re going to scatter my ashes in the creek.”

Originally published in the November issue of
San Francisco 

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