Photos provided by Renter Mentor
Housing and Eviction Reduction/Stability are cited as the #1 priority of the City of Columbus’ Recovery and Resiliency Advisory Committee as released in its Final Report and Recommendations on Wednesday, December 1, 2021. The committee was formed in 2020, “to identify recommendations focused on equity and long term resiliency that will propel all residents to an improved quality of life in Columbus and Franklin County,” as the city recovers from the coronavirus pandemic. Renter Mentor, a local social enterprise, is providing practical solutions to this ongoing crisis impacting families across the city.
Renter Mentor, a business launched in 2020, assists landlords and tenants through housing processes and provides them access to needed supportive services. The social enterprise defines its social impact as, “Making sure that the lowest of income of families and individuals are able to access affordable housing, while on-boarding high performing landlords into the ecosystem.” Renter Mentor also aims to help housing agencies and related businesses transform into intelligent business operators.
Renter Mentor was recognized as a finalist for the 2021 Emerging Social Enterprise of the Year Award at Aspire, and continues to make significant strides forward during a ubiquitous affordable housing crisis. I had the good fortune of discussing the organization’s progress and impact with founder, Jerry Valentine.
Vicki Bowen Hewes: Thank you for your important work, Jerry. Having spent the first two decades of my career in mixed-use and multi-family real estate, I’m acutely aware of the importance of your business. The company’s initial focus – an online platform designed to connect tenants looking for affordable housing with landlords willing to rent to them – was planned for launch in 2020, and we all navigated major pivots through the pandemic. You led forward with a phone service and helped dozens of families through that platform. How have things changed since launching your website?
Jerry Valentine: It was more like an expansion of services because even with the website live, our service line continues to receive calls. The Launch of the first iteration of our website, in July, was a major milestone for the company that allowed us to expand and streamline the work that we were already doing. Best of all, it allowed us to go up another level in our design thinking process.
VBH: I’ve surfed your website, it’s very comprehensive and easy to use. How are you working to onboard more partners? Possibly you’re pivoting to more of a community service provider than a consumer connection? The housing crisis coupled with covid have had a major effect on the industry.
JV: We are definitely a community service provider but still doing consumer connection work. We are building a landlord incentive program and being more intentional and present in the private real estate sector in hopes to attract more landlords that will work with us.
VBH: One of the areas you had a defined focus on was partnerships with community-based organizations to help both landlords and those in need of housing connect. What organizations have you partnered with, and can you share some of the outcomes?
JV: The Central Community House was our first big community partnership – we are contracted with them to administer moving and emergency rental assistance that came from the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services. To date, we have helped Central Community House disburse $690,000 to over 400 families in Franklin County.
Another critical partnership we were able to develop is with the City of Columbus. This past August we were awarded a contract from Columbus City Council to conduct a housing education campaign to educate residents of Columbus on three new pieces of housing legislation, Source of Income Discrimination being one, that went into effect in July.
VBH: That is great news – your hard work is recognized and the problem is pervasive – your dedication changes lives and you’ve pivoted through some unprecedented times. Has there been any person, agency or business that has helped you significantly, and if so, how?
JV: Buckeye Interactive, a local technology development firm here in Columbus. They came in as a technical partner, mid-year of this year, to help my team finish building the first iteration of the Renter Mentor website. I am looking forward to developing that relationship further as we move into the new year.
VBH: Your work is so critical because the people you work with are within a significantly overlooked demographic that is often targeted by slumlords and predatory landlords. How can the public advocate for change?
JV: Being aware is one of the best things people can do. Being aware that there is an affordable housing crisis and being aware that the crisis is deeply rooted in systemic racism. When you have a sense of awareness of what is really going on, for those that care, it should make you want to do something. That something can range from submitting verbal and written testimony to Columbus City Council in favor of fair housing legislation, donating to an affordable housing program, renting a unit at an affordable rate, being a developer that intentionally chooses to build more affordable housing units. Everyone can make a difference, you do not have to be a property owner to make a difference in this crisis.
VBH: What’s your blue sky? What would you love Renter Mentor to be known for five years from now? What would you do if there were no limitations?
JV: We want to be known as the centralized platform that is helping connect people to affordable housing and other supportive services. A goal and vision of mine, for the company, is to not only be a technical resource but also the ones buying and developing our own mix-used real-estate portfolio in order to increase our impact and bottom line.
VBH: You’re a trailblazing innovator, and our city is fortunate that you are advancing solutions to the housing crisis. Your vision for mixed-use property is a real win-win-win – lessee wins, community wins, owner wins and paying it forward!