Central Ohio is woefully underserved when it comes to providing housing for low-income residents. For about 13,000 residents that receive Housing Choice Vouchers, there are only about 3,500 landlords serving that population, says Jerry Valentine, founder & CEO of Renter Mentor.
Working for the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority, he saw first-hand the gap that exists between landlords and Housing Choice Voucher tenants. He also observed the predatory nature of the space. A plethora of housing websites like Zillow, Apartments.com and more are ripe for housing scams, like collecting nominal application fees over and over again for properties that might not even be available, or individuals taking advantage of property owners that live out of state or don’t manage the property themselves and renting out their space unknowingly, leading to squatter’s rights and evictions.
Looking at the platform CMHA was using that was supposed to serve Housing Choice Voucher recipients specifically, Valentine saw many landlords on the platform that didn’t even accept the voucher. So why were they listed?
Valentine offers Renter Mentor as a way to close that gap. With the goal of bringing accountability, clarity and efficiency to the affordable housing market, Renter Mentor provides a tech-enabled platform that connects landlords and tenants in the space.
To make the platform as accessible as possible, Renter Mentor is a web-based application available through the Renter Mentor website at rentermentor.net.
The platform is free to use for tenants.
“Who plays for our platform is the property owner and these community-based organizations and housing agencies – those are our customers. It is free for the tenant,” Valentine says.
Individual tenants and landlords can use the platform, but Renter Mentor will look to partner with housing agencies and other community organizations that serve the low-income housing space and already have connections to landlords and residents.
Renter Mentor has recently launched its alpha testing site, moving from private testing to market testing, so the platform will remain free for all to use for now. When it moves to paid services, it will operate on tiered Free, Freemium and Premium membership plans for property owners. Paid plans will include features like additional listings, ability to directly communicate with tenants, data and analytics reports and more.
Renter Mentor will provide security by verifying property owners.
“We’re authenticating every property owner,” Valentine says. “We’re using the county auditor systems to verify property ownership.”
The platform will look to provide services and incentives for landlords that perform positively to encourage them to keep servicing the low-income population.
With his background, Valentine understands the complexities that surround the Housing Choice Voucher system and used that knowledge to help not only develop the system, but provide an alternative revenue stream while the Renter Mentor platform was being built out.
Valentine started, and will continue to offer, consulting services that either educate landlords and property owners on how to efficiently work with the Housing Choice Voucher system, or he can set it up for them.
“Within the housing choice voucher system, it’s complex and it’s very manual, so a lot of those landlords did not necessarily…it wasn’t that they didn’t want to accept the voucher, it was like they didn’t want to go through the hassle of the process,” Valentine says.
He piloted the consulting services with a company in Olde Towne East. When the property came under new ownership, he helped the owner get an existing Housing Choice Voucher’s tenant information transferred over, and helped to place six additional voucher tenants.
Valentine says that while the landlord pool for voucher tenants is slim, many do see it as an opportunity because of the stable income it provides – something that is even more attractive now in the continued fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
Renter Mentor was getting ready to fully launch its consulting services when the coronavirus pandemic struck and largely put the world on hold.
Instead, Renter Mentor turned its focus to building out the technology behind its platform, and using that tech to assist other organizations in automating communication efforts.
Looking back on Renter Mentor’s journey to alpha stage launch, building the company has been a prime example in leveraging the business-building resources available to entrepreneurs in Central Ohio.
Valentine first pitched his idea at GiveBackHack in 2019. Walking into the weekend-long pitch competition as an individual, he walked out with a team and $7,500 in funding.
The next step was to continue to build the business which operates as a social enterprise through the SEA Change accelerator. The 14-week program helps impact businesses further develop and refine their models. Renter Mentor pitched its way to another $15,000 in seed funding at the culmination of the accelerator.
The validation from the two programs encouraged Valentine to take the leap and leave his job to pursue Renter Mentor full-time. In order to leverage most of the money they had received towards building the platform, Valentine turned to those consulting services to bring in revenue.
The consulting services will remain important during the alpha phase. Valentine says Renter Mentor’s next moves will depend on the funding they receive and revenue they generate.
The ultimate goal is to continue to build out the platform and scale across the state. In five years, Valentine hopes Renter Mentor’s platform is utilized across the state.
Housing will also be just one part of what Renter Mentor offers.
“If you look at the state of housing…housing is the heartbeat to economic mobility,” Valentine says. “We feel as if our platform in its later stages will be that heartbeat for a lot of other not only housing platforms and agencies, but also other resources that these particular low- to moderate-income families need, because just getting someone housed is one solution to a bigger issue.”
For more information, visit rentermentor.net.