Travis Silvey finally found his “sense of place” when he came to the Port Madison Indian Reservation seven years ago.
Silvey, 33, grew up on the East Coast with his father and then moved to Texas. As an adult, he decided to move to the Port Madison Indian Reservation with his mother, a member of the Suquamish Tribe.
Feeling the call to spend time with his relatives and learn about his tribal heritage, Silvey said he very quickly integrated into the tribe and felt at home.
“It was a sense of place that I was lacking everywhere else I had lived,” Silvey said. “Hard to describe. Always felt like something was missing in my life until I moved here.”
But when Silvey decided he wanted to put down roots on the reservation and raise his own son, Jesse Jade, 4, there, it wasn’t easy.
He and other tribal members – both those who have come of age on the reservation and those wanting to come back after being away, like Silvey – are facing the same difficulties that residents across Puget Sound are facing: a white-hot real estate market that is squeezing both renters and those seeking to buy affordable homes.
The tribe offers assistance in housing members of its tribe, both through offering affordable rentals and lots for sale where tribal members can build their own homes, which allows them to fully take advantage of all the tribe has to offer when it comes to connecting to the culture, schooling, medical care and employment.
But despite its efforts, there is still a growing waiting list of members seeking affordable housing. And tribal officials say the scarcity of housing is shining a brighter spotlight on the need to reclaim properties on the reservation for their own members and the ugly history that led to their loss in the first place.
An ongoing journey to own a house on tribal land
After his son, Jesse Jade, was born in 2018, Silvey and Jesse Jade’s mother updated their applications for tribal rental opportunities and were selected from the tribe’s housing waitlist to rent a house on the reservation.
“All I know is it’s a point system. And so, you know, if you have kids, you accumulate more points,” Silvey said.
Both Silvey and Jesse Jade’s mother had submitted an application and put their names on the housing list.
The three lived together in a two-bedroom, two-bathroom tribal rental house for a year and a half. Eventually, the family was selected to move into a bigger house. But he and Jesse Jade’s mom eventually separated.
In 2020, working as a fisherman in Suquamish, Silvey began to consider buying his own home to raise Jesse Jade and store his fishing equipment and have a place for his boat and trucks. He needed room to host his 10-year-old daughter, who lives in Texas, when she visited him in Washington state.
Silvey was approved for a $175,000 home loan. But a search of houses in Suquamish turned up only homes in need of severe rehabilitation that were still over his borrowing limit. The closest move-in-ready house within Silvey’s limit was a one-bedroom, one-bath cabin that cost $210,000, he said.
“I’ve worked ahead of time and different things that I’ve done … all for the same goal, is providing stability and consistency and everything for my kids,” Silvey said. “To work that hard and not be able to reach that goal, it was kind of devastating.”
After realizing homeownership was out of reach, Silvey rented a home in Hansville. He reached out to the tribe again and got a spot at the tribe’s tiny house project, which serves as temporary housing and is linked to social services, last November.
In April, Silvey finally landed a house where he can envision settling down and raising his son. The tribe provided a three-bedroom, two-bathroom lease-to-own home, meaning Silvey will have an option to purchase the house on the tribal land after 10 years, he said.
“If it wasn’t for the tribe, I honestly have no idea where we’d be right now,” Silvey said.
Looking to help more
The Suquamish Tribe acknowledges there are many more like Silvey looking for the tribe’s help to put them in a home on or near the reservation. The average cost of a rental unit in Suquamish was $1,932 in May, according to RentCAFE. The average value of a home in Suquamish was $483,139 in April, according to Zillow’s home value index. At last check, there were approximately 60 applicants on the tribe’s waiting list for affordable housing.
“A lot of them want to live here, of course, because this is where cultural activities take place. This is where the school is, and services, the day care, and the community is, so they want to be here around the tribe,” Suquamish Tribe Chairman Leonard Forsman said.
“There is just not enough housing on the market that’s affordable for them on the reservation,” Forsman said.
Contributing to what the tribe says is a “chronic scarcity” of affordable housing on and near its reservation is the “checkerboard” nature of tribal and non-tribal properties in Suquamish. That “checkerboard” is the result of federal and local policies throughout the past 150 years that took land out of tribal hands since the U.S. government signed the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855. The treaty guaranteed hunting and fishing rights and a reservation in exchange for tens of thousands of acres of the tribe’s homeland.
In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, authorizing President Grover Cleveland to survey and divide tribal land into allotments for individual tribal members and families.
The Burke Act passed in 1906, allowing the secretary of the Interior to decide whether a tribal member was “competent” to manage their allotted lands.
Many were declared “incompetent” to handle their land affairs, according to Forsman, and the United States retained legal title to their land as trustee for tribal members. Some ended up having their allotment being sold in auctions by an Indian agent, who was appointed by the U.S. government to oversee the people of a reservation.
At the low point, the Suquamish Tribe and its members owned just one-third of the land and a fraction of the waterfront property on the reservation. Homes that now line the shoreline of Agate Pass sit on property appropriated by the U.S. military for “fortification,” though the tribe said it was never given such a use. It was later sold off to white developers, with racial covenants on the land that made it illegal to sell to tribal members.
While the covenants remain on documents still housed at the Kitsap County Auditor’s Office, a 1960s-era federal law made such covenants illegal.
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Working to get it back
The process of the Suquamish Tribe reacquiring its land on the reservation started around the 1970s and 1980s. Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act in 1975, which provided federal funding to buy land on the reservation and build housing for tribal members, Forsman said.
“Some of the first tribal housing was built here (on Port Madison Indian Reservation) in the 1970s, so people were able to move here from other places,” Forsman said.
Today, through decades of repurchasing the land at market rates, the tribe and its members own more than half of the land on the reservation.
“We’ve been doing this (buying land and building houses for tribal members) for a while. We continue to do it,” Forsman said.
When the market crashed during the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009, the tribe was able to acquire homes on the reservation at relatively cheap prices.
But that sort of buying has halted in the current real estate market.
“It’s just not economical for us to do that right now,” Forsman said.
A surge of pandemic funds awarded to the tribe in 2021 has ushered in a new era of building, however. A portion of the $28.6 million the tribe received from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 has gone to two projects in particular.
The “Little Hill” housing development off Totten Road provides a dozen lots with utility infrastructure where tribal families can build their own homes.
The tribe is also working on a 20-unit townhouse complex across from the Suquamish Tribe Administration building on land the tribe recently reacquired from a private developer. Known as “Suquamish Shores,” the 36-acre parcel has a complicated history. In 1968, the tribe, which at the time had limited resources with which to operate and provide basic government services, made the decision to lease 36 acres of land to a private, non-tribal developer, Chief Seattle Properties, over 50 years, with the tribe getting $7,250 annually for the land. The firm subleased the parcels to those wanting to build homes on the tribal land.
Chief Seattle Properties eventually exited the project, “leaving those who built homes and the Tribe to sort out the details of their individual leases,” according to the Suquamish Tribe’s website, “a process that would take several years and test the relationships between Tribal Members and their neighbors living on the Port Madison Indian Reservation.”
The 50-year lease ultimately ran out on May 31, 2018, returning control of the property to the tribe. A redevelopment plan for the property includes open spaces and a heritage trail in addition to the new townhouse complex.
In addition to the building projects, the tribe is also using pandemic stimulus funds to help its members purchase homes through down payment assistance and support the repair and maintenance of homes owned by tribal families.
Bringing up a new generation on the reservation
Today, Silvey is giving his son the Suquamish upbringing he did not have. They enjoy attending Suquamish’s coastal jams, where tribal members cook and eat traditional foods, like salmon, crabs and oysters. They do traditional dances around the fire pit.
Jesse Jade and other kids living on the same street often play outside with Silvey’s dog. Parents communicate with each other and check on the kids once in a while.
“It’s awesome. I mean, that’s what the kid needs, you know, be close to the other kids and be close to the family,” Silvey said.