Bill Keasler was a longtime, tenacious leader of Seattle’s houseboat community and its Floating Homes Association. He passed away March 17 at age 69.
There might not be a “Sleepless in Seattle” houseboat and blockbuster movie without Bill Keasler.
A longtime leader of Seattle’s houseboat community, Mr. Keasler was president for 30 years of the city’s Floating Homes Association (FHA), which fought battles with city and state officials to keep the homes on Lake Union and Portage Bay.
The once-bohemian community has faced opposition from developers and bureaucrats and evictions that jeopardized the very existence of houseboats in Seattle. Mr. Keasler was instrumental in pushing for policies that protected the roughly 500 floating homes that remain.
He died of cancer March 17. He was 69.
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“He dedicated a significant part of his life to ensuring the permanency of the floating- home community,” said Amalia Walton, current FHA president.
His chief contribution was making sure that people could stay on their docks and that renters had the right of first refusal if their docks went up for sale, Walton said. As a result, many floating-home owners joined together in cooperatives to buy their docks and gain a sense of stability for their homes.
Peter Eglick, an attorney who represented the FHA, likened Mr. Keasler to preservationist Victor Steinbrueck, credited with saving Pike Place Market from the wrecking ball.
“I knew them both and think Bill is as important for floating homes as Victor was for the battles he engaged in,” Eglick said.
Mr. Keasler was a “scrapper,” said Jann McFarland, a longtime floating-home resident and FHA office manager.
But he also was strategic, smooth and good-humored, according to Eglick. When facing a challenge from City Hall, “you could just see the wheels turning, the grin on his face,” Eglick said. “He was always thinking about how a position was going to be received and perceived.”
Mr. Keasler came to live on Lake Union after studying electrical engineering at the University of Washington. He was raised in Lakewood, but his family owned a beach property on south Puget Sound and he grew up playing in saltwater and “messing around with boats,” said his wife, Caryl Keasler.
The two started dating in junior-high school, she said, and married in 1969 when she graduated from the UW.
Shortly after, the newlyweds stumbled upon an affordable houseboat on Lake Union, she said. That was back when floating homes were popular with artists, musicians and college students.
Mr. Keasler went on to work as a computer-systems designer but loved the water and was happiest, his wife said, when they went up to British Columbia in their 30-foot sailboat.
They were evicted in 1983, a case the Keaslers fought all the way to the state Supreme Court, where they lost. The Keaslers ended up buying a home on a friendlier dock.
Houseboats once provided inexpensive domiciles for people who worked around water, including loggers, fishermen, boat makers and bootleggers. By the late 1930s, they peaked in number with more than 2,000 floating homes in Seattle.
“But local officials decided in the 1950s that this restless group of malcontents had to go,” Mr. Keasler wrote in a history of the FHA.
As their numbers dwindled, houseboaters began to fight back, forming the FHA.
The community has been close-knit, and just not because it felt beleaguered, said Marty Greer, a longtime FHA board member who succeeded Mr. Keasler as the group’s president. “We live six feet apart. There’s not a lot of privacy. We’re all hooked up to the same toilet basically,” Greer said.
Bonds also are strengthened when neighbors help rescue a nearby houseboat from a wind storm or from sinking under a roof covered with snow. These community concerns and connections are the true reason for the houseboaters’ tenacious defense of their homes and lifestyles, Mr. Keasler once wrote.
Tenacity was required. In the 1970s, a number of houseboats were displaced by an over-the-water apartment building, the Union Harbor Apartments. The next proposed development was the Roanoke Reef Apartments, which the community fought in a seven-year legal battle. The apartments were halted and a half-finished three-story parking garage was torn down.
But evictions continued and moorage hikes sometimes exceeded 400 percent. The FHA appealed to the City Council and in 1977 won its first “Equity Ordinance,” which imposed strict controls on evictions.
Moorage owners took the new law to court, beginning another round of battles and revisions to the ordinance. There were also challenges about nonconforming moorages, shoreline planning and more.
“I don’t know that others could have navigated this series of complex legal and political fights,” Greer said. “None of us can imagine being that dedicated. He was constantly vigilant, almost paranoid.”
Eventually, the struggles led to agreements with the city and state that limited the number of floating homes to its current count. (Walton, the FHA president, said it’s important to call them “floating homes” as they are not navigable and are tied to sewers.)
Mr. Keasler called the relative calm of recent decades a “hard-won peace” but urged others that “you can never stop fighting,” Walton said.
Despite his accomplishments, Greer said, there are a handful of newer floating-home owners on her dock who don’t know who Mr. Keasler was. “That’s like being an American and not knowing George Washington,” she said.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Keasler is survived by his daughter, Karen Caplan, and her husband, Leigh Caplan. Memorial donations may be made to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the MPN Research Foundation. A celebration of Mr. Keasler’s life is being planned.