Renter Mentor bridges gap for affordable housing

Cynthia Bent Findlay
Jerry Valentine, founder, Renter Mentor

Some tech startups are born when entrepreneurs find applications for intriguing technologies. Affordable housing, though, has no shortage of problems waiting for tech solutions.

Renter Mentor is stepping into that breach with a mission to connect renters, landlords and agencies serving the homeless and affordable housing community. Founder and CEO Jerry Valentine says Renter Mentor was created to boost efficiency and accountability in the affordable housing market.

The idea behind Rentor Mentor gelled in Valentine’s head as he began working with the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority. “The key was for me to come in at the entry level to learn the business,” he says. “I was on the front line of it all and got to hear the core problems.”

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He found a decades-old process involving multiple manual and repetitive steps and in-person visits to agencies and properties, creating potential for missed connections and human error.

Because of a shortage of Section 8-eligible housing, clients often wait years to be issued a voucher and then must race to find available properties within 90 days.

Landlords face a process that still in large part takes place on paper, in person and over the course of months to enroll their properties with HUD and various agencies, with no centralized information resource to explain those steps.

From the renter side, there’s no centralized list of landlords and what tenants they will accept. And housing scams abound—including a prevalent fraud involving scammers breaking into for-sale homes and listing them as available rentals, then taking the unsuspecting tenant’s payment and keeping it.

Valentine says he knew there had to be tech solutions to automate some of the more repetitive processes and forms. In 2018, he took his ideas to GivebackHack Columbus, where they were a hit. He won seed money.

That propelled him through the 14-week SEA Change accelerator, and Renter Mentor as a for-profit social enterprise took shape.

Valentine and his team settled on a strategy of offering consulting services to onboarding property owners into the affordable housing ecosystem and a three-way CRM which manages the relationship between property owners, tenants and agencies that offer rental assistance, utility assistance and other housing services.

The platform features a searchable database of landlords who are Section 8 friendly and further identifies landlords who are eviction-friendly or willing to work with those coming out of the justice system. “When we talk about the affordable housing spectrum, [that’s] who we try to help,” Valentine says.

Landlords will gain the ability to rate tenants through their use history (the reverse is also true), automate processes and auto-populate forms. Landlords and agencies will support Renter Mentor via subscriptions. The platform is free to tenants and accessible through mobile devices or desktop computers.

Valentine says Covid-19 has forced many agencies to go remote and become willing to take a look at tech solutions the industry was slow to adopt previously. Renter Mentor is entering an alpha testing phase at the end of September with tentative relationships already in place with a slate of landlords and agencies.

Cynthia Bent Findlay is a freelance writer.

Renter Mentor

Founder and CEO: Jerry Valentine

Business: Software for affordable housing landlords, tenants and agencies

Launch date: September 2020

Investment to date: $32,500 in prize and seed funding plus in-kind donations