A controversial company is trying to legitimize itself by laundering columns
Rhino, a real-estate startup that wants to sell more of a product it calls "security deposit insurance," is planting company-friendly columns in media outlets. But one of them backfired.
This is Seeking Rents, a newsletter devoted to producing original journalism — and lifting up the journalism of others — that examines the many ways that businesses influence public policy across Florida, written by Jason Garcia.
In early April, the Orlando Sentinel published an unusual guest column from a staffer in the administration of Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings.
The 600-word op-ed, which was ostensibly written by an assistant to the county administrator, promoted a product marketed as “security deposit insurance” — and a company called Rhino that sells it. The piece even included a link to Rhino’s website.
The column wasn’t really written by the Demings staffer. It came instead from public-relations reps for Rhino itself, according to emails obtained through a public-records request — a fact that no one disclosed to the Sentinel at the time.
The laundered column recently set off a small firestorm in central Florida after Orlando Sentinel reporter Stephen Hudak broke the news of Rhino’s hidden hand, particularly among advocates for renters who say Rhino peddles a deceiving product that preys on financially struggling people.
Demings — a Democrat who is up for re-election this fall and whose wife, Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings, is challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio — said he didn’t learn of the op-ed until it appeared in the newspaper, accused Rhino representatives of manipulating one of his employees, and returned a $5,000 donation that a lobbyist who represents Rhino had recently made to Demings’ political committee.
“I have significant concerns about a county administration staffer writing an op-ed on behalf of a private company,” Demings said. (The mayor also chided his staffer, Lucas Boyce, for “poor judgment,” and the Sentinel for failing to vet the submission; Boyce apologized, and the Sentinel appended the column with a note explaining who really wrote it.)
But the incident also exposed a stealth public-relations campaign by Rhino that extends far beyond Orlando — one in which the company is trying to legitimize itself and its product by planting company-friendly columns in media outlets around Florida and across the country.
In just the past few months, pro-Rhino op-eds, all ostensibly written by independent community leaders, have been published in Florida Politics and Gannett newspapers such as the Tallahassee Democrat. They’ve also surfaced in places such as AL.com, part of the company that publishes the Birmingham News and other newspapers in Alabama, and San Antonio Report, a nonprofit local news operation in Texas.
Rhino, a five-year-old startup that raised $95 million from investors last year, appears to have had a hand in all of them, according to emails between Carson Chandler, a public-relations exec who represents Rhino, and Boyce, the Orange County staffer who agreed to put his name on the Rhino column that was sent to the Sentinel.
The company seems to be prioritizing younger folks and people of color. “For the immediate effort at kind of raising the profile of the option of security deposit insurance as a way to ‘reimagine and modernize renting’ the client is really hoping to get some organic, younger voices,” Chandler wrote in one email to Boyce.
The brand-washing comes as Rhino — and similar startup competitors like LeaseLock and Jetty — are trying to overcome opposition from tenants’ rights groups and skepticism from policymakers.
Though they all take slightly different approaches, companies like Rhino and LeaseLock ultimately sell products that give prospective tenants the ability to pay perpetual monthly fees in lieu of a larger, lump-sum security deposits when they move into an apartment.
The companies cast themselves as innovators helping to solve affordable housing crises in Florida and elsewhere. And it’s indisputably true that the upfront costs of renting — which can also include payment of both the first and last month of rent — are a big barrier for many working people, particularly folks living paycheck-to-paycheck (especially because there is no limit to how much a landlord can demand for a security deposit).
But there are catches. A whole bunch of them.
For one thing, unlike security deposits, these fees aren’t refundable, so they can cost renters more money in the long run and make it that much harder for someone to begin building wealth. They’re a lot like payday loans in that respect.
For another, it can be a misleading product. For instance, Rhino’s security deposit “insurance” is only insurance for landlords. The company will pay a claim for damage filed by your landlord, but then it will come after you for reimbursement — even though you’ve been paying the monthly fee.
Rhino and LeaseLock have both been lobbying state and local governments around the country to pass legislation that would enshrine their current business practices into law. But pro-tenants groups like the National Housing Law Project have been pushing back, demanding that any industry legislation include a host of important tenant protections.
In Florida, that’s led to a stalemate. At least so far.
This past session, lobbyists for LeaseLock and Rhino lobbied a bill with minimal consumer safeguards through the state House of Representatives. Records obtained by reporter Jeffrey Schweers, then of the Tallahassee Democrat and now of the Orlando Sentinel, revealed that the original proposal was written by LeaseLock lobbyists, though it was later amended for Rhino lobbyists, too.
The measure failed to make it through the Florida Senate. But this battle will be back next year. There’s a lot of money to be made here, and this is precisely the sort of idea likely to appeal to Republican leaders in Tallahassee, who have so far been unwilling to pass more substantial rental reforms that are opposed by business-lobbying groups like the Florida Apartment Association.
Which brings us back to Rhino’s efforts to line up local community leaders who are willing to use their platforms to lend credibility to the company.
But there’s at least one person Rhino shouldn’t bother asking for help in the future.
“I don't believe that the Rhino fee-in-lieu-of-security-deposit is best practice in the residential rental market,” Jerry Demings said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified one of the media outlets in which a pro-Rhino column appeared. The column was published on AL.com (not Alabama Today).