Renter Mentor Stepping Up Efforts as Eviction Moratorium Set to Expire
Renter Mentor, a startup social enterprise that launched in 2019, has spent the past year adapting on the fly as the impact of the pandemic has continued to be felt by Columbus residents in need of affordable housing.
The company’s initial focus – an online platform designed to connect tenants looking for affordable housing with landlords willing to rent to them – was supposed to launch last summer, but that product was put on hold shortly after it was announced.
“Our team needed more help; we had three part-time developers helping me build the platform,” said Jerry Valentine, founder and CEO. “They didn’t have enough time and capacity to get it to where we needed it, [so] we went a different direction.”
In December, Valentine and his team launched a phone-based service; a number that both landlords and tenants could call into.
“That was our first MVP [minimum viable product]…we needed to get this out to the community and see if this is something,” Valentine said, adding that the initial returns were promising. “We were able to serve over 60 folks, connect them to landlords, get them moved or rehoused within about two months…it was a real good indicator of where our clientele were coming from and how we wanted to connect the property owners.”
The number is still active, and tenants are still calling into it, but now the website is up as well. It went live on June 4, with two prominent links on the homepage – one for tenants looking for housing, and another for landlords or property managers looking to list properties. Both services are free.
Most of the people calling into the service line have been tenants looking for housing, not landlords, Valentine said. Established relationships with the Columbus Apartment Association, the Ohio Realtor Association – as well as connections from Valentine’s time working for the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority – allowed Renter Mentor to connect the tenants calling in with housing providers, but he knows more outreach will be necessary to bring more individual landlords into the network.
(For more on Valentine’s background and the early days of Renter Mentor, see this Metropreneur profile from last summer).
“We’re working on a landlord recruitment and education campaign, called ‘choose affordable housing,'” he said. “The whole basis is to increase landlord recruitment and retention, but also to improve the landlord-tenant relationship.”
In addition to building out the website and encouraging landlords to list their properties on it, the company also hopes to work more directly with community-based organizations.
Renter Mentor has already established a relationship with Central Community House, serving as a consultant to the Near East Side organization and helping it to distribute temporary rental assistance to families in need.
Valentine hopes to soon add in other organizations, eventually building out the capabilities of the online platform so that groups can use it to help their clientele access rental assistance and other programs offering help. Instead of landlords paying to list their properties on Renter Mentor – the original concept for the website – the organizations would pay, thus helping their clients and also supporting a service that might not exist otherwise.
Although the nuts and bolts of the business model have evolved over the last year, the company’s efforts are still focused squarely on what Valentine calls the “affordable housing market.”
“At first I thought this was a Section 8 solution,” said Valentine, adding that he soon found out that the problems confronting those looking to utilize their government-issued Housing Choice Vouchers are also being felt by a much broader swath of the population. “It’s people who have been in the shelter system, our elderly and disabled population, the justice-involved population, people with evictions on their records….they all had something extra that came with them that would allow landlords to unintentionally or intentionally discriminate.”
With eviction filings steadily increasing in Franklin County – even before the CDC eviction moratorium officially expires at the end of July – Valentine believes the need to connect people to affordable housing and related supportive services will only grow.
“There are slumlords and predatory landlords that target this demographic because they’re desperate,” he added. “We’re excited that this is a solution that literally caters to this demographic, [one that] was overlooked for so many decades.”
Editor’s note (6/24/21): this article was updated with new information about the expiration of the CDC’s eviction moratorium, which was extended through the end of July.
For more information, see rentermentor.net.