Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization

Division of Social Sciences, The University of Chicago

Issue 6 | Winter 2024

Docktown, CA

Story and Photos by Evgenia Anastasakos

The Docktown Marina is a patchwork of houseboats. There are boxy, two-story homes and smaller, sleeker trawlers. Some are more weathered than others, their paint flaking away, bleached by the California sun. Potted plants and empty chairs sit on the wooden docks, swaying on the water. Yellow flowers and brittle grass line the muddy banks of the creek. 

You can see and hear the faraway traffic from the Bayshore Freeway. Signs glow from the gigantic strip mall on the horizon. A neat row of cookie-cutter condos sits on a hill, overlooking the boats. Just a short walk away from the Marina, over the freeway and past the police station, you’re in downtown Redwood City, home to software companies, corporate offices, and seven dollar coffees. But in Docktown, you forget that you’re even in Silicon Valley.

This summer when I visited,  there were nine or ten boats docked on the creek, the last gasp of a decades-old community. Most of the ones that I had counted are gone now, forced out by pressure from the city. 

“It’s not a surprise to mariners that we’re here. It’s only a surprise to Redwood City,” says Ed Stancil, who has been a Docktown resident since 1998. 

According to Stancil, there have been homes floating on Redwood Creek for “sixty-some years.” Records of a private marina operator date back to 1983. 

Stancil met his wife a year after his move to the Marina. They had pictured themselves growing old together on the creek, until she died of COVID-19 almost two years ago. 

“When I met my wife, we made a pact that we would just try to live out our lives on boats in Redwood City. And we did that for a few years,” says Stancil.

Life seemed like it could go on indefinitely in Docktown. But a 2015 lawsuit from Ted Hannig, an attorney living in a condo overlooking the marina, revealed that they were living on borrowed time. 

The lawsuit called for the removal of the floating homes, citing California’s public trust doctrine. While the upland portion of the marina is on private land, the state of California still owns all tidelands, submerged lands, and the beds of all inland navigable waters. Redwood Creek, which was granted to the city by the State Lands Commission in 1945, is considered a part of the public trust. State law requires that the city maintain open access to the water. 

Redwood City had leased the upland area to a private owner, who then leased the docks to a private marina operator, who rented slips, which are like parking spaces for boats, out to residents. For a while, the city seemed to turn a blind eye to the liveaboards. After the marina operator left in 2012, the city took over Docktown’s daily operations. 

When the city requested informal advice on the legality of residential use in Docktown in 2015, the California State Lands Commission wrote that “residential houseboat use is inconsistent with the public trust doctrine.” The letter recognized and anticipated protest over the lack of alternative affordable housing, but was ultimately unsympathetic. They remained unswayed by California’s housing crisis.

Other floating home communities on the San Francisco Bay, in Sausalito, Mission Creek, and Alameda, were grandfathered by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and allowed to stay. Redwood City unsuccessfully attempted to grandfather residential use of the Creek in 2005 and 2016. Later, when the mayor of Redwood City wrote to the State Lands Commission asking them to support legislation to allow Docktown to stay for fifteen more years, they still would not budge. 

Hannig’s lawsuit also alleged that the marina was polluting the water with styrofoam from the docks and toxins released from sinking vessels, weaponizing environmental concerns to turn the tide against Docktown. A later environmental assessment from the city concluded that the marina and its residents were not a significant source of bacteriological or chemical contamination, but the damage to the residents’ case was already done.

portrait of Stella Bennett

Jasper the cat. He lives in a boat called Sampan, owned by one of the last remaining Docktown residents.

The conflict was also personal for Hannig; in interviews with local media, he claimed that a high velocity golf ball had nearly hit him in the head, from the direction of the marina. Hannig says he filed a police report about the incident. 

This was Hannig’s second time advocating for the closure of a Redwood City houseboat community; in 2012, he litigated the Pete’s Harbor case, which ended in the shut-down of the docks. The city council later greenlit plans for the development of luxury condos on the former marina’s property and Pete’s Harbor was cleared out to make room for 402 units of housing, a commercial marina, parking, and amenities.

In the end, Hannig won a 4.5 million dollar settlement, three million of which was allocated for repairing the marina and relocating Docktown residents. 1.5 million went to Hannig and a group called Citizens for the Public Trust. After the settlement, Redwood City Council voted to approve the Final Docktown Plan. It gave residents two options: relocating or accepting the city’s offer to buy their homes. 

Docktown was put on track to become another Pete’s Harbor, as residents were left with an impossible choice.

In October, when I spoke to Marcus Vargas, one of the last remaining residents, he told me that Docktown had been slowly disappearing. One person had passed away and others had taken buyouts from the city, leaving only six left. The majority of Docktown’s slips now lie empty, open water and forgotten docks stretching along the shore. 

Vargas has lived in Docktown for seven years. He was originally from the Los Angeles area, but moved to the Bay Area when he was recruited to be the operations manager for a catering company. He spent a year in San Jose, renting a room with one of his company’s chefs, before he found Docktown.

The community seems more like a ghost town now, haunted by the memory of the lively neighborhood it once was. Vargas remembers what it was like when he first moved in. 

“There was a doctor that lived there, a teacher, retired military, and everything in between. You had a mix of people and you also had the central hub of the community, which was the yacht club. It was our little community center where we would all hang out,” says Vargas. 

There was “a little bit of everything and everyone.” He recalls over 110 vessels. 

Vargas says that he would pay 500 dollars a month to rent his slip. Now, facing eviction, he isn’t sure how he will be able to afford to live in the area. 

“All of my clients are in South San Francisco and Burlingame. It really puts me out of business. It ruins my livelihood,” says Vargas.

The original offer on his boat was 30,000 dollars. That doesn’t cut it for Redwood City, where the median gross rent from 2017 to 2021 was 2,693 dollars per month. Residents are backed into a corner, unable to live on land and unable to stay on the water.

portrait of Stella Bennett

Empty boat slips on the dock. There used to be a community of over one hundred vessels

Stancil isn’t sure how he could replace his home, either. He called the city’s initial offer of 20,000 dollars for his boat “an insult.” A later evaluation for his boat, The Whisper, was 82,950. The number still wouldn’t cover similar housing on land, especially on a fixed income. “It was our forever home,” says Stancil. “With all this going on with affordable housing, why would they want to close us down?”

The City of Redwood City says that they are “striving to support Docktown tenants,” but the Docktown plan has been met with bitter resistance. Marina residents have spent years in and out of courthouses, attempting to slow Docktown’s closure. The residents who could afford to leave left as soon as eviction efforts began. But the people who remain have nowhere else to go. 

When I called him, Vargas told me about his neighbors who were in court that day, rattling off a list of names. The jury trial was in progress for the inverse condemnation case that they had filed against the city in 2017. 

Inverse condemnation allows property owners to demand just compensation when they believe that the government has taken or damaged their property. For Docktown’s residents, their argument was that their eviction and the marina’s neglect counted as lost property. The California Law Review explains that while sometimes inverse condemnation can function like a belated eminent domain proceeding, similar to Docktown, it can also be used to demand compensation for problems caused by spillover effects from government activities or government regulation. 

The only requirements to file are that the affected interest qualifies as property and that the damages are “direct, substantial, and peculiar.” In the first phase of the trial, two years ago, the court found that the plaintiffs had proven their cause of action for inverse condemnation. The loss of property was, in fact, substantial. 

The court said that “the tenants have lost the use of basic amenities and habitability of the marina itself while leasing the dock, and thereafter by their eviction, will lose or have lost their houseboat property.” 

Phase two, which was underway this October when Vargas and I spoke, was a jury trial to determine the damages. A few of the plaintiffs had already settled and dismissed their claims between the two trials. The court reassessed the market value of the remaining plaintiffs’ boats and awarded them money for attorney’s fees and appraisal costs. The new values were higher, but still not enough to cover the cost of a home on land. 

portrait of Stella Bennett

Empty boat slips on the dock. There used to be a community of over one hundred vessels

portrait of Stella Bennett

Humphries and his 35-foot mid-size sailing yacht, Tequila Sunrise (already named when he bought her) arrived in Docktown nine years ago. At the time, there were around 150 vessels docked there. Humphries makes sure to clarify that, although the word “yacht” may sound fancy, it really means any boat too big to pull out of the water without a crane. He has lived in nine different marinas over the past fifteen years, but says that Docktown was special. 

“Most people have no concept of what it really means to have a really tight knit, close community of people who are going to put themselves on the line for you at the drop of a dime,” Humphries says. “I knew every single one of my neighbors, from a quarter mile down the dock. Everyone knew everybody there. People would be angry at each other, but you would see people who just hated each other jump in and save each other’s boats. There was a connection there that overrode anything that had happened previously.” 

Redwood City originally offered Humphries 10,000 dollars for Tequila Sunrise. After the inverse condemnation case, they ruled that the fair market value for the boat was 56,090 dollars. But he isn’t sure how he could find a new home with so little. 

“I have a three bedroom yacht. I own it completely. I paid six to seven hundred dollars a month with utilities. Where am I going to replace that on land?” 

It isn’t easy to replace it on the water, either. The text of the inverse condemnation decision acknowledges that “the evidence is that there are no alternatives in the geographic area.” There are no other available slips for Docktown’s live-aboards in Redwood City. 

Humphries had tried to move to Redwood City Municipal Marina. He was hesitant to untie Tequila Sunrise and risk losing his permit without a guaranteed spot at the other marina, so he bought a cheap second hand sailboat. It was 34 feet long, had a class 3 septic system, and was operable. On paper, it met the marina’s specifications. But when he showed it to the harbormaster at the time, he was told that he “didn’t like the lines,” — naval architect slang to say that he didn’t like the look of the boat. It didn’t match the image of the marina. Most of the other boats were newer and fancier. 

“I had just spent all this money buying this boat, buying this motor, paying for slip fees at municipal, just to get the rug pulled out from under me,” Humphries said.

Vargas thinks that the city is trying to squeeze Docktown’s residents out by taking away facilities. There used to be restrooms, a laundromat, a community center, and shower facilities. Those were replaced with a trailer. 

The marina’s docks drift and lurch underfoot, the wood rotting away in the water. Humphries says that the docks have become dangerous and make it hard for him to access his own home.

portrait of Stella Bennett
portrait of Stella Bennett

In August, when I walked along the neglected docks, they rocked with every step. Glimpses of the water peek out between gaps in the wooden planks. Maybe the docks just aren’t worth maintaining for a city that doesn’t want or expect the marina to stay around for much longer. 

A mid-November blog post from the municipal government explained that the city will continue to pursue settlement agreements with the remaining tenants. 

Before phase two of the trial, Humphries had told me that, if things didn’t go right in court, he expected the city to start tearing the docks down within a few months. Now, things seem uncertain. Over text, Stancil told me that he had no clue what was going to happen next. Two more residents had settled, leaving only four. The city is waiting for the rest. 

Humphries says he is considering trying to move to the municipal marina again. The previous harbormaster, who had turned him away, was removed. He says the new one seems like a “straight shooter.” Humphries’ paperwork to get a slip has been turned in, and he’s waiting to see what happens next. 

Sitting on the docks, I watched a seal poke its head above the water and bob out beyond the houseboats, to the bay. The sun melted into the creek in a blaze of orange while the roar of the freeway echoed behind us. Lights flickered on in the boats’ windows as night fell. 

In the midst of the housing crisis, it’s easy to lose hope that the Bay Area will find a way to survive this. Gleaming glass office buildings and modern condominiums spring up where homes used to be and people who have called the region home for generations find it harder and harder to stay. Nothing lasts anymore. I was born in the Bay Area, but I’m coming to terms with the likely reality: I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to live there again, in a California that I recognize. 

In Docktown, the region is losing one of its last alternative ways of life, some hope that it was possible to stay and make a home in the bay. I’m sad to see it fade.

Across from Docktown, One Marina Homes offers residents “waterfront living.” A real estate listing boasts of high-end flooring, designer kitchens, and a “tranquil” creek. Some of the homes are listed for over 1 million dollars. 

The land adjacent to Docktown has also been singled out for development. Right next to the marina, there are plans for 131 three-story for-sale townhome residential units. The development is part of a set of city proposals to develop the Inner Harbor area. The city website doesn’t say much about what will happen to Docktown, aside from a hyperlink to “see here” for more information. By the time prospective buyers begin touring the townhouses, Docktown will likely be gone, replaced with a waterfront view. 

I’m surprised the community has held on as long as it has. The life that Docktown is a hold-over from another time, when it was possible to live in Redwood City on a low income, when people trusted their communities, when developers weren’t eyeing every last bit of land. I’m scared to go back to the marina and find it empty.