No amount of remorse or hard work, it seems, will offset for many landlords Artiste Mayfield's criminal past.

She's got a degree and a job, and an apartment at a building for recovering addicts. She's ready to find a mainstream apartment. But she finds no one will rent to her, owing to her criminal past.

"I feel bad about making bad decisions," Mayfield said. "I am doing all that I am supposed to do. There is so much red tape in the way. You can't move on."

Mayfield is just one among a growing population of people who can't rent a place to live. Now four of the Twin Cities' largest nonprofit landlords are partnering to figure out where to draw the line when it comes to past mistakes.

A $75,000 grant from NeighborWorks America will help pay for the first-of-its-kind study. The goal is to shrink the growing class of so-called unrentables.

One-third of all adult Americans, or 100 million people, have some sort of criminal record, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Criminal rap sheets, old financial problems and spotty rental histories — all records that are more accessible than ever — are factors that landlords, even the nonprofits ones, use to disqualify potential renters.

The nonprofits — Aeon, CommonBond Communities, Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative and Project for Pride in Living — want to compile data to figure out questions such as whether a 10-year-old shoplifting or drug conviction should keep you out of an apartment. What about five years? Will the safety of others be jeopardized?

They hope the research will give landlords some valuable data to reshape their own tenant screening. The four nonprofits own and manage 10,000 affordable units in the metro area and western Wisconsin, and their rental policies affect tens of thousands of people.

"We are looking to screen in, as much as we can, versus screening people out," said Lisa Wilcox-Erhardt, CommonBond's executive vice president of housing and services.

Finding the sweet spot

Aeon leaders decided to launch the study after they realized their own rental requirements varied by property and weren't based on research, of which there is none, said Chief Operating Officer Eric Schnell.

"Everyone is trying to find that sweet spot to provide reliable, safe, affordable housing," Schnell said. "But we can't make data-driven decisions, so we are making decisions based on our best guess.

"We know we are keeping people out of housing."

Guidelines issued in April by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have added some urgency.

According to HUD, landlords can run afoul of the federal Fair Housing Act if a policy restricting access to housing based on criminal history has a disparate impact on individuals of a particular race, national origin or other protected class.

Aeon already has eased some of its income and rental history requirements for prospective tenants. It now requires renters to prove they make two times their monthly rent, rather than 2 ½ times. It requires 12 months of past living/rental history rather than 18.

"We were asking too much of people," Schnell said. "These are our neighbors. We should do everything we can to make sure everyone has a home."

Some offenses, such as arson, draw a lifelong ban from Aeon properties. For the safety of all residents, Schnell said, that won't change.

Reviewing tenant criteria

CommonBond is embarking on similar work.

"We definitely are taking a look at our criteria and are in the process of revising it now. Through this process we will be opening our doors to individuals who have housing barriers," Wilcox-Erhardt said.

The Minnesota Multi Housing Association has thrown its support behind the study.

"The more we can understand the specific challenges facing certain populations of renters, the more we can partner with local governments and the nonprofit community to have constructive solutions," said MHA President Mary Rippe.

Mayfield, 51, has lived in an Aeon apartment complex for people in alcohol and drug recovery for the past eight years. During that time, she has earned a two-year degree, worked on a bachelor's degree and landed a job.

She said she hopes the research will change policies and open some doors for her.

Overcoming the past

Mayfield grew up in north Minneapolis and left her family's troubled home at age 14. She racked up a rap sheet for theft, drugs and prostitution before she understood the lifelong consequences, and she served time in prison.

She speaks candidly about her past. "I got caught up with some wrong people," she said. "You get caught up in a downward spiral of drug abuse."

Mayfield finally faced her demons in her 40s. She got sober, got an education and became politically active, working as an organizer for U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison's campaign.

At age 43, she moved into an apartment of her own for the first time, a studio in an Aeon building for people who had overcome addictions. She remembers the joy of that day, marveling over having her own bathroom and going shopping with her probation officer for sheets, pillows and other things needed for a home.

"It was a dream," Mayfield said. "It's an honor for me to have a home."

She later moved up to a coveted one-bedroom apartment in the same complex, which costs her $480 a month. She even served on Aeon's board and struck up a casual friendship with Aeon President Alan Arthur.

"Alan is a good man," she said. Even he has acknowledged that current policies keep Mayfield out of most of Aeon's properties.

She twice went to court and tried to get some of her convictions expunged. Both times, she was denied.

"I have been rehabilitated. I am doing so much," Mayfield said. "It's time for me to move on."

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804