Letting strangers live rent-free in his house: cool or crazy?

An attorney who works at UCLA's law school tests the limits of generosity with an experiment. So far, it's more inspirational than cautionary tale.

When Tony Tolbert turned 50 last year, he marked the occasion by moving in with his mother.

The decision wasn't about money. He's a Harvard-educated attorney, on the staff of UCLA's law school. And it wasn't because his mother wanted or needed him home.

It was Tolbert's response to the sort of midlife milestone that prompts us to take stock. Instead of buying a sports car, he decided to turn his home — rent free — over to strangers.

He'd been inspired by a magazine article about a family that sold their house, squeezed into a tiny replacement and donated to charity the $800,000 proceeds from the sale.

"It just struck me how powerful a gesture that was," Tolbert said. "It challenged me to think about what I could do, where I might have some overflow in my life."

His overflow was a modest home on a quiet tree-lined street a short walk from Crenshaw Boulevard. He'd lived there alone for 10 years.

Last January, he moved out and a young single mother with three little children moved in. A South Los Angeles domestic violence program chose the family from its shelter and brokered the deal.

He agreed to let her pay one dollar a month, and imposed on her only one rule: "Whatever has to happen to keep things drama free, that's what I need you to do."

When Tolbert first shared his story with me, he wanted me to write about it but not name him. He didn't want publicity. He just hoped that, since he'd gotten the idea from something he'd read, maybe someone reading my column would be inspired to … do what?

Let strangers take over their homes rent-free?

I figured he was either crazy, very rich or hopelessly naive.

That was last summer, when he didn't know himself how the experiment would work out. There were times, he said, when he wondered if his leap of faith had gone a step too far.

"A couple of friends said 'You're out of your mind.' But others said 'That's great.'"

His mother worried that he was being too trusting — and didn't exactly relish the idea of sharing space with her grown son for the first time in 30 years.

But he'd grown up in a family where sharing your blessings mattered.

So Tolbert left the good furniture for the woman who moved in. He didn't hide his grandmother's heirloom quilt or put away the fine art.

"I told her straight out, this is my home. I'm leaving these things for you to enjoy. I want you to be comfortable here."

That was a learning process for Tolbert: "It was a good exercise in not grasping and hanging on to stuff.... Short of them burning the house down, I had to accept that whatever they tear up, it can also be repaired."

And he had to accept that generosity and gratitude aren't always a matched pair.

"I had all kinds of preconceived notions about how this would play out. We would meet, she would be weeping, want to give me a big hug.... I had to learn to detach, not be attached to any particular outcome or course."