102-year-old woman’s eviction threat sparks help from Schwarzenegger and new investigation

Thelma Smith is shown in photo at right
Thelma Smith, shown in photo right, is being evicted from her Ladera Heights residence of 30 years. Her longtime neighbor Pauline Cooper, left, spoke about her 102-year-old friend’s situation.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County is investigating whether an eviction notice sent to a 102-year-old woman at her longtime home in Ladera Heights violated temporary renter protections approved by lawmakers last year.

Thelma Smith, 102, has rented in a small complex in an unincorporated area of Ladera Heights for nearly three decades. She received an eviction notice in March, telling her to move out of her Craftsman-style home by the end of June so the landlord’s daughter could move in.

The county’s Department of Consumer and Business Affairs is now investigating whether the eviction notice complied with interim rental protections that the Board of Supervisors approved last fall.

Contacting all the parties involved and gathering information will take several business days, spokesman Keven Chavez said. Evictions can be delayed or stopped if the landlord did not comply with county policies, he said.


Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, whose district includes Ladera Heights, said county departments that handle questions of aging, housing and economic survival are also reviewing Smith’s situation, as are a homeowner’s association in Ladera Heights and several tenant’s rights groups.

“It is a reflection on all of us if we don’t do everything we can to bring this to a proper conclusion,” Ridley-Thomas said in an interview Saturday. “We’ll do whatever we can to make sure that Ms. Smith is not unsettled, and that we protect the quality of her life — a long life.”

News of Smith’s eviction sparked outrage from family, neighbors and friends, including former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said that she had been “a dear friend for a long time.”

“Imagine doing this to a 102-year-old woman who gave back to the community her whole life,” Schwarzenegger said on Twitter. “It is heartless. Thelma, I’ll be reaching out to help. Landlords, you’ll hear from me too.”


The county’s temporary rent protections took effect in November. They are aimed at protecting elderly, disabled and poor residents in unincorporated areas who live on fixed incomes and cannot afford market-rate rent in Southern California.

The interim rules limit rent increases to 3% annually and require that landlords have a legitimate reason for evictions. The policy does not apply to single-family homes, which are excluded from local rent stabilization policies under California law.

The county’s rent policy allows evictions if a landlord’s immediate family members — including children — are planning to move in. By law, the new tenant must move in within three months of the eviction and use the property as a primary residence for at least a year.

Smith’s landlord told her in a letter that they would be ending her month-to-month lease because his daughter would need a place to live when she graduated from law school.


When asked by a television reporter why he would evict a 102-year-old woman, he responded: “Would you take care of your child?”

Smith has lived alone since the death of her husband and has no immediate family in Southern California.

“She’s been there a thousand years and is paying very low rent,” said her friend and longtime neighbor Pauline Cooper, who has lived in the quiet neighborhood, which is south of Culver City and Baldwin Hills, since 1999.

Smith worked for years as an executive secretary for the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by the famous boxer that runs sports, anti-drug education and mentoring programs aimed at reducing juvenile delinquency.


“It’s nice for people to care about you, and share,” Smith told CBS2, when she received a fruit basket from Schwarzenegger, topped with a big silver bow. “I have always been a caring and sharing person.”

Times staff writer Colleen Shalby contributed to this report.

For more transportation news, follow @laura_nelson on Twitter.