Virus Compounds Challenges For Native Tenants In Rapid City

September 28, 2020

Coronavirus cases were on the rise in South Dakota in July when Hope Chipps, a 48-year-old Lakota woman, was evicted from her Rapid City apartment, along with her husband, children and grandchildren.

She had withheld rent, part of a pressure campaign to get her landlord to restore the hot water and fix the sparking electrical outlets. But after her landlord filed a lawsuit to throw her and her family out for nonpayment, Chipps felt defenseless. Standing before the magistrate judge without a lawyer, she recalled, "I felt like I was dumbfounded. I didn't know what to do."

Chipps is now part of Rapid City's homeless community, the majority of whom are Native American, and her family has scattered. No longer able to quarantine, she couch surfs and checks in on elders camping along the Rapid Creek, despite the arthritis in her ankles.

While many jurisdictions enacted eviction moratoriums this spring in response to the pandemic, South Dakota made no special accommodations. Rapid City has a large Native American population — nationally, the majority of Native Americans live in metropolitan areas — and a shortage of affordable housing. Tenants there have very few legal defenses on the books, and report difficulty finding lawyers who will represent them for free.

A new federal eviction ban enacted this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a glimmer of hope through December, but it has qualifications and will be of little use if people don't know about it, or have no help filling out the required paperwork.

Brent Thompson, director of East River Legal Services in Sioux Falls, which serves tenants in the eastern part of the state, described the new CDC rule as a "pretty big game-changer" for South Dakota, which had "no moratorium whatsoever put in place."

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