Jerry Valentine's startup website hopes to streamline the process for finding Section 8 units while also limiting predatory housing scams

When Jerry Valentine started at the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority in 2016, he’d never worked in the industry before. But the more he learned about the space and the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program, which provides housing assistance to low-income families, the more he noticed a disconnect between tenants and landlords.

“I would always hear landlords say, ‘Hey, I want to put my property up on Section 8. How do I do that?’ And, ‘I can't find a tenant.’ Then you had the tenants saying, ‘No one would accept my voucher,’” Valentine said. “There wasn't a centralized way to find someone who is a voucher holder if you are a landlord or property owner who is voucher friendly.”

He also saw countless tenants victimized by online housing scams on websites such as Gosection8.com, Zillow and Craigslist. In Columbus, thousands of people sit on a waitlist for years to get a chance at a housing voucher, and once the housing authority issues it, tenants have 90 days to use the voucher before it expires. Scammers then take advantage of that desperate situation.

In some cases, a person posing as a landlord or property owner won’t meet with a prospective tenant until the applicant pays the security deposit and/or an application fee. “Even if you just take the application fees someone is charging — say, $75 per application — that’s easy. That's a quick scam, and you never, ever have to see a person,” Valentine said. “If you think about it, what's stopping me or you from posting any property that's out here and acting like it's our own?"

“I have even seen it go to the extent of a For Sale property being shown to a tenant,” Valentine continued, “and the ‘landlord’ takes the security deposit and first month's rent and application fees, and that tenant moves in, and about a month or two later, the real owners show up. … I would hear these stories from tenants and landlords on a daily basis. It almost became an ethical situation, where I was like, ‘Well, how can I help?’”

Seeing an opportunity, Valentine began researching other housing authorities, looking for a secure, mainstream solution to the scams and the landlord-tenant disconnect problem, but he couldn’t find one. So Valentine came up with his own technology solution, then called the Landlord Tenant Portal, which he pitched at the Give Back Hack in April 2019. The idea got him $7,500 in seed funding, which then led to SEA Change, a Social Enterprise Accelerator, and more funding. Valentine put together a team and refined his idea, eventually landing on the website Renter Mentor.

Renter Mentor links tenants looking for affordable housing with landlords willing to rent to voucher holders (though the site is not limited to Section 8 housing), and Valentine said the site authenticates both the tenant and property owners to cut down on scams. Much of that verification work is done through automation, primarily comparing the details with information listed on the county auditor’s site. Renter Mentor is currently in its testing phase in Columbus, with a full launch expected by the end of September. (During the test phase, the platform will be free for tenants and property owners; after the launch, property owners will have the option to subscribe to Renter Mentor’s expanded services.)

Valentine realized, though, that Renter Mentor couldn’t merely be a tech solution. He found that landlords were often reluctant to rent to voucher holders because they lacked information on the process for getting their units up to compliance. Renter Mentor hopes to streamline and automate much of that process to make it easier for property owners to accept a component of affordable housing, but Valentine’s team also incorporated hands-on education.

“We’re here to be a physical resource where you can call in and get any question asked and answered,” he said. “There's a huge education gap — not just what these affordable housing programs require, but also the overall landlord-tenant law.”

With so many Ohioans out of work and eviction court back in business, the pandemic has only intensified the need for more affordable housing options. “We were already in an affordable housing crisis — not just here in Central Ohio, but across the nation — and COVID-19 pushed even more people into qualifying for these programs,” Valentine said. “It’s causing even more need for a Renter Mentor platform to help community organizations that are now taking on the burden and helping them automate and streamline processes. … And you need to get the money to the people that are really experiencing the disparity the most — Black and brown people.”