Minneapolis tenants facing evictions are increasingly showing up in housing court without a lawyer when their cases are heard, leaving them disadvantaged in fighting their case, tenant advocates said Wednesday.

To protect those on the verge of losing their housing, Mayor Jacob Frey and a coalition of law firms announced the launch of a program called "More Representation Minneapolis" that hopes to increase the legal representation of tenants in Hennepin County housing court.

In Minneapolis, about 3,000 tenants — most of them members of minorities and living in low-income households — face evictions every year, city data shows. Almost none has an attorney.

"Housing is a right, and securing that right requires representation in housing court," Frey said. "More Representation Minneapolis is aimed at providing just that by utilizing the resources in our legal community and targeting them to prevent unfair eviction."

Twelve local law firms, including Volunteer Lawyers Network and Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, will participate in the program to increase pro bono legal assistance for Minneapolis tenants.

"Nearly 80 percent of our clients are people of color and we disproportionately deal with problem actors who operate in neighborhoods deeply affected by poverty," said Tom Walsh, executive director of Volunteer Lawyers Network. "This is exploitation of the worst kind."

The average apartment vacancy rate in Minneapolis during the fourth quarter of 2017 dropped to 2.2 percent, according to a report from Marquette Advisors.

"People have nowhere to go," said Luke Grundman, managing attorney at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid. "If you have an eviction on your record, it's almost impossible [to find housing]."

Frey's 2019 proposed city budget includes $150,000 for a program that seeks to protect tenants from evictions by funding their access to legal help.

Through the More Representation Minneapolis program, Volunteer Lawyers Network will add 25 additional volunteer lawyers and increase its yearly eviction defense hours by 20 percent, Frey said.

In an interview, the mayor said the coalition of law firms will help residents get more legal help without additional cost to the taxpayer.

"This is harnessing the resource and the expertise that we already have in our legal community and allowing us to protect tenants," he said.

Gina Robinson, who joined Frey and tenant advocates, said she has lived in Minneapolis for more than 30 years. In April, she went to a housing court without a lawyer to dispute the terms of rental agreement with her landlord.

"It was terrifying, particularly when the other side is represented by a lawyer," she said. "It was exhausting, financially, physically and emotionally."

She said the judge decided in favor of the landlord.

"The effects of the litigation had made it very difficult for me to find and obtain stable housing," Robinson said.

Mukhtar M. Ibrahim • 612-673-4689