Best of Seattle 2010: Merf Ehman

Best Watchdog for Tenants

Many lawyers can trace a fairly straight trajectory from college to law school to bar exams. Merf Ehman spent the years before she became a lawyer on welfare. “I had a lot of struggles,” she says.

To continue to collect money from the state, under the welfare-to-work programs that became widespread in the early ’90s, Ehman had to stay busy, through a paid position or volunteer work. So she got a job as a cook and also started volunteering at a legal nonprofit. One day a friend told her “You could give back more.”

This jarred Ehman into action, and she finished her undergraduate degree and applied to law school in 1994. While studying at the State University of New York at Buffalo, she hated her class in property law. And yet that became her specialty—more or less by accident, because her landlord, an attorney, was willing to give her a break on rent if she’d work at her nonprofit, which provided legal assistance to people with nightmare landlords or facing unfair evictions.

“I ended up working on housing issues because I needed a place to live,” Ehman says.

She went on to become director of the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project, a sort of legal MASH unit whose volunteers fan out to area courthouses and basically wait for people facing eviction to show up. She’s since moved on to being the managing attorney for the entire Seattle office of Columbia Legal Services, a nonprofit that helps low-income people navigate all aspects of the civil and criminal courts.

But housing remains Ehman’s focus. She still volunteers with the Project, but has turned her attention from individual clients; she now works to change local and state laws to better protect tenants in the first place. In June she won a victory when the City Council voted to allow random rental-housing inspections to prevent slumlords from letting their buildings fall into disrepair. Ehman says she is now trying to alter the state rules that govern what information is made public in tenant screenings.

“She has this dedication to people who have the least access to legal services—people who are the most poor and vulnerable,” says L’Nayim Shuman-Austin, a recent Seattle University law grad who met Ehman through the Housing Justice Project.

Says Ehman: “I kind of went from being someone on the bottom to someone with a lot of power and privilege, and I wanted to give some of that back.” 

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