Internal emails show Rhino’s role in security deposit legislation
Behind Mosby and Middleton’s bill, a lobbyist supplies talking points and promotional graphics, while a critic concludes, “We’ve been had”
Above: Baltimore City Council Vice President Sharon Middleton pictured with other public officials on Rhino’s “Renters Choice” website. (renterchoice.org)
One day after the Security Deposit Alternatives bill was introduced in the City Council, its sponsor, Council Vice President Sharon Green Middleton, received an email from an officer at the Greater Baltimore Committee. He was “reaching out to connect” her with his friend, Rhino lobbyist Jordan Stein.
“Jordan and I first met a number of years ago when I was working for Gov. O’Malley and he was working for Mayor Michael Bloomberg,” wrote Jeremy Rosendale, GBC’s director of member engagement and external affairs.
Rosendale forwarded to Middleton an email sent to him by Stein the same day – January 12 – explaining his company’s efforts to pass “Renter’s Choice” legislation in other cities. Stein (lobbying the Baltimore bill, though unregistered to do so) said he wanted to reach Middleton.
“It was exciting to see Baltimore Council Vice President Sharon Green Middleton introduce a bill along the same lines as Atlanta’s,” Stein wrote to Rosendale.
Judging by emails obtained by The Brew through a public information request, Stein’s involvement in the months that followed was significant, as Bill 21-0022 was discussed, amended and finally approved by the Council.
The correspondence shows Stein worked closely with a legislative staffer for City Council President Nick Mosby, who has defended the bill on the radio and boosted it on multiple media platforms.
Stein’s name pops up repeatedly.
In February, after Public Justice Center attorney Matt Hill expressed concern about how the “renters insurance”described in the bill could hurt rather than help tenants, the Mosby staffer, Nikki Thompson, arranged for Hill to “walk through the process” with lobbyist Stein.
In another email, Stein preps Middleton for an online roundtable he organized that she participated in.
“I will be in touch by the end of the day with a list of questions for you to review,” he wrote to the 6th District councilwoman.
In addition to giving Middleton the questions in advance, Stein noted that he attached “promotional graphics customized for twitter, linkedin and an email flier.”
“It would be fantastic if you could promote your presence on this virtual roundtable today on social media,” Stein continued. “Please also include in any promotion this link for FREE registration for any constituent, colleague, friend, etc. to join to watch.”
Mosby shows up as the participant in online meetings with Stein, including one he organized on March 9 that also included communication strategists Sophia Silbergeld, of Adeo Advocacy in Baltimore, and Geoff Vetter, of The Clyde Group, based in D.C.
The subject line for the meeting: “Renter’s Choice legislation follow-up.”
Now on Scott’s Desk
There has been keen interest in the involvement of Rhino, the venture capital-backed New York company, in the legislation.
Bill 21-0022 was propelled aggressively to passage by Middleton and Mosby despite strong opposition by dozens of progressive groups that advocate for renters, consumers and residents in Baltimore’s low-income, majority-Black neighborhoods.
The bill now sits on the desk of Mayor Brandon Scott, whose election bid last year was backed by many of the same progressive groups now pounding on him on a daily basis to veto it before Monday’s deadline.
Veto prospects appear uncertain at best, with Mosby and Middleton signalling publicly and privately that Security Deposit Alternatives is one of their top priorities.
Sources say Middleton has been privately dismissing the opposition as coming from White-led groups.
It’s a provocative charge that rankles the bill’s foes, who point to the diversity of the organizations that signed on to the Baltimore Renters United coalition’s call for a veto.
The internal emails released to The Brew include few from Mosby, although they indicate that his staff took the lead on crafting the bill.
From the redacted material provided by the city Law Department, it is impossible to know whether the January 12 email from Stein represents his company’s first contact with Middleton or Mosby. There are also references to attachments, but none are included.
Why was the material withheld?
“The disclosure of the deliberative material would not be in the public interest because it would serve to chill the free exchange of ideas between government employees in formulating how to act,” assistant city solicitor D’ereka Bolden told The Brew in an email.
The content of many of the emails, like this one from a Mosby staffer to a Middleton staffer, was completely redacted:
A March 14 email from Councilman John Bullock to Avery Aisenstark, director of legislative reference, was also completely redacted.
Rhino has made no secret of its push across the country to win passage of bills that promote the use of its product.
Its Renter’s Choice website touts legislative wins in Cincinnati, Atlanta and – now – Baltimore. There is a photo of Middleton positioned next to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and other elected officials.
Middleton’s bill identifies two alternatives to traditional lump-sum security deposits, installment payments or surety bonds like Rhino’s, and requires landlords to offer one or the other. They may offer both but are not required to.
Rhino has framed its concept as progressive and innovative – “a movement” – and argues that the small monthly charges will help cash-strapped residents in need of housing during the pandemic.
Critics call Rhino’s surety bond product deceptive and say it could trap renters into paying high fees and charges to a largely unaccountable company.
Stein’s emails furnish talking points – a memo “outlining the value proposition of ‘Renters Choice’ legislation,” for instance – and “a case study from Cincinnati that found success and positive reaction.”
One email also includes “legislation the Philadelphia City Council has engaged on which gets the opportunity in front of every renter by removing the reduced deposit option.”
“We would be very glad to discuss this potential modification, including pros/cons and rationale,” Stein adds.
The subject line on one email, from Mosby’s office to Middleton’s, is “model leg.”
In addition to Rhino, others impacted by the bill turn up in the emails, including California-based LeaseLock, Inc., whose clients are apartment buildings and property management firms rather than renters themselves.
Among those engaging Mosby’s office representing the company are attorney Josh White and, from Alaris Strategies, Chris Grimm.
Another LeaseLock representative is attorney Frank D. Boston III, one of the top-earning lobbyists in Baltimore and Annapolis. The contents of some of Boston’s emails were completely redacted by the Law Department.
This includes one whose subject line is “Baltimore Mark-Up.docx.”
“You sponsored the above referenced bill. Mr. Boston would like to do a Zoom mtg in the morning of February 9-11 2021,” his staffer tells Middleton’s aide.
“We’ve been had”
Advocacy groups also turn up in the emails.
The Public Justice Center’s Hill is reassured by Mosby’s staffer that his concerns about possible “predatory practices” by Rhino had already been addressed – by Rhino.
“The Council President’s office and Vice President Middleton share those concerns and had the great opportunity to walk thru the process with Jordan Stein, from Rhino,” Thompson tells Hill.
“We asked what happens when someone is delinquent, moves out and owes, etc. and really appreciated the amount of thought that Rhino has put into their process,” Thompson continues.
As more information about Rhino emerged, the housing advocate’s concerns only grew.
She arranges for Hill to meet with Stein and have the lobbyist “walk through this process” so that they can “come to a resolution.”
As more information about Rhino emerged, however, it appears Hill’s concerns were not eased, but only grew.
“We’ve been had,” he and fellow PJC attorney Charisse Lue declare in a letter to Mayor Scott.
The two lawyers point to a leaked Rhino training video that they say shows the company’s “true intention is to allow landlords to file claims with Rhino during the terms of the lease.”
(Rhino CEO Paraag Sarva told WYPR’s Sarah Kim that the video, which the company has since removed, was “taken out of context.”)
“Rhino’s surety bond is not a ‘security deposit alternative’ but a means of avoiding tenant protections,” Hill and Lue wrote to Scott. “This will destabilize housing in Baltimore, and we urge you to veto the bill.”
The January 12 email from Rhino’s Jordan Stein to GBC’s Jeremy Rosendale: