Diversity booming in South Dakota’s largest city

By Steve Young
Sioux Falls, South Dakota (AP) April 2012

Sioux Falls’ minority populations have doubled and almost tripled in some cases during the past decade, U.S. Census Bureau housing statistics show – a trend apparently fueled in large part by jobs and refugee resettlement.

From 2000 to 2010, houses owned or rented by Hispanics and Latinos in Minnehaha County jumped from 786 to 1,723. Residences owned or rented by blacks or African Americans rose from 695 to 1,818, and American Indian numbers increased from 577 to 1,007.

Similar rates of growth occurred in Lincoln, McCook and Turner counties as well, according to Census findings.

“I know among the Hispanic and Latino populations, they are coming to Sioux Falls and South Dakota because the economy hasn’t hit as hard here as in California, Texas, Florida, New York, places like that,” said Juan Bonilla, president of the Spanish Speaking Community Association of Sioux Falls. “They are moving from those places to look for better job opportunities. And they’re looking for a place where their kids can have a good education.”

Data from the American Community Survey put Sioux Falls’ overall Hispanic and Latino population at 8,127 in 2009. There were 5,124 blacks or African Americans in the community, 3,442 American Indians and 2,930 Asians.

Bonilla said he thinks the Hispanic and Latino number is low and doesn’t include members of those groups who are in the process of gaining U.S. citizenship. He estimated that there are 22,000 Hispanics and Latinos living within a 50-mile radius of Sioux Falls, with a purchasing power in 2010 of $450 million. The majority are coming from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico, he said.

Another factor driving the minority numbers is Lutheran Social Services. That agency reports that it resettled 627 refugees in 2010 and 545 in 2009, primarily in the Sioux Falls area but also throughout South Dakota.

Tim Jurgens, director of LSS’ Refugee and Immigration Center, said his agency has resettled primarily Asians from Nepal and Thailand the past two years, but worked with a number of Africans from Somalia, Burundi, the Congo and Sudan earlier in the decade, as well as refugees from eastern Europe.

Ghirmay Solomon, a 44-year-old husband and father of four, is a refugee from the East African country of Eritrea who arrived in Sioux Falls in the late 1990s. Through the benevolence of Habitat for Humanity, this FedEx worker was able to move his family into a home near St. Joseph Cathedral as 2000 turned into 2001.

They had an option to be part of a Habitat neighborhood on North Jessica Avenue, or to take a site on North Spring Avenue, Solomon said. They chose the latter because it was closer to his job, and because there were a number of other Eritreans living near the Cathedral.

“It was important to us to live near others from our country,” Solomon said. “We have a connection to them so we can help each other. And we were closer to some of the city services downtown.”

When he was Sioux Falls’ mayor 15 years ago, Gary Hanson worked at discouraging racial and ethnic clustering in neighborhoods. He thought it was important that the various ethnic groups live throughout the community, saying, “I want to be absolutely certain we do not establish neighborhood segregation by race, speech or religion.”

That would be their goal as well at Lutheran Social Services, Jurgens said. But with an individual refugee in Sioux Falls limited to $405 monthly for eight months through the federal government’s Interim Cash Assistance program, “it’s going to be hard for me to put them in a place at 69th and Minnesota because of budget and rent and transportation issues.

“We would love to look at all areas of the city to place them,” he said. “But there isn’t always adequate public transportation to get them to and from, say, government services, or where they work. They want to be near their employment due to the fact they can’t drive. They have family and friends from their same ethnicity in certain areas, and they want to live near them. Those dynamics create scenarios where certain ethnicities end up in the same neighborhood.”

It’s not a problem today as far as he can tell, Mayor Mike Huether said.

“Whether you’re Norwegian or German Russian or African, we shouldn’t be telling you where in town you can live,” Huether said. “No one is going to ask your nationality when you move in. But they are going to want you to maintain your property and help your neighbor occasionally when it snows.”

That isn’t entirely true, Solomon and Bonilla say. Though housing discrimination seems to have ebbed in Sioux Falls during the last 15 to 20 years, it hasn’t gone away entirely, they insist.

Solomon said another Eritrean told him not so long ago that he was looking to buy a house in southeastern Sioux Falls and was advised by a real estate agent “that it would be better not to buy in that area. You would be better with your own race.”

A committee of 14 people and 16 organizations formed by the city several years ago to analyze impediments to fair housing in the community heard similar stories, said Bonilla, who was part of that group. In their research, they found that most property owners are good business people who will rent to qualified applicants, but that discrimination does occur because of ignorance about fair housing laws, he said.

“I think prejudice is not a big issue, but it’s still an issue we have to work on,” he said. “Predator landlords taking advantage of racial groups is not a high percentage, but we still see it happening.”

The committee also found that minorities run into problems getting housing loans because of language barriers, Bonilla said. In a community where at least 100 different languages are spoken, many minorities have difficulty understanding mortgage lenders or comprehending the paperwork put in front of them.

To counter that, the committee recommended banks and lending institutions expand their bilingual services, and develop or expand their diversity and cultural competency training.

It’s important to start that today, Bonilla said, and will be even more important in the future as Sioux Falls’ minority populations only get larger, especially among Hispanics and Latinos.

“They are here,” he said. “They are going to stay. They’re investing in our community, and those numbers will only continue to grow.”
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