Filed Under Business

Robert R. Lavelle

Building Communities and People

In a time when banks regularly refused mortgages to Black applicants, Robert R. Lavelle invested in Black homeownership in the Hill District community.

For a large part of the twentieth century, Pittsburgh's real estate industry and homeowners blocked African American access to housing and homeownership. Racism and redlining denied these qualified applicants home loans and ownership due to the color of the applicant's skin and the close-mindedness and shortsightedness of those in power at loaning institutions. Banks simply did not lend to African Americans, and lenders avoided certain neighborhoods, creating "a self-fulfilling prophecy of neglect and deterioration." African Americans found themselves left out of lending programs. As an example, though the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was founded in the 1930s, as of 1967, only 3% of all new homes had been sold to African Americans. Robert R. Lavelle proactively worked to change these issues of ownership for Pittsburgh's African American community.

Starting in the early 1950s, Robert R. Lavelle made homeownership a reality for numerous Pittsburgh African Americans. Lavelle spent his entire life working to revitalize the Hill District. After twenty-one years at the Pittsburgh Courier, Lavelle changed careers and started his own business - Lavelle Real Estate - in 1951. A few years later, he rescued the faltering Dwelling House Savings and Loan in 1957 and used that bank to focus on supporting African American homeownership in Pittsburgh and the Hill District in particular. Lavelle's group loaned to African Americans when others would not. His efforts made a difference, as homeownership in the Hill grew from 14% in the 1960s to over 40% in the 1990s.

Lavelle argued that "Homeownership is the basis of all wealth" and that "When poor people own the land they're living on, then they have power." Homeownership gave residents standing to demand more from their schools through the payment of property tax. Additionally, homeownership drove neighborhood and community improvements through the simple concept of pride of ownership.

You can have integrity no matter what your situation.
-Robert Lavelle, 1988

When financial hardship hit customers, Lavelle would counsel them on financial matters. On late notices, Lavelle would often offer handwritten Bible verses focused on the importance of responsibility.

Throughout his life, Robert R. Lavelle fought to correct wrongs and injustice when he encountered them. As a young serviceman returning from World War II, Lavelle encountered racism in the Jim Crow South. When Lavelle refused to sit in the back of a streetcar in Virginia, a white man threatened him with a crowbar. Lavelle would later recount: "I stood up to him. I've always fought for self-respect, and I was willing to lose my life for it right then and there." In 1967, after being denied membership and access to Pittsburgh's real estate association and multilist service, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund represented Lavelle in his suit against 35 Pittsburgh realtors in a case centered on his exclusion from professional services. The suit was settled out of court, with Lavelle Real Estate being granted membership in the real estate association and full access to the listing service.

While Lavelle championed the Hill District, he also lamented the effect crime had in reducing the quality of life for its residents. In the wake of Martin Luther King's assassination and the Eight-Day Riots, Pittsburgh found itself in a tumultuous time where crime levels escalated. In a 1969 letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, Lavelle noted that in that year, his Hill District real estate office had been burglarized three times, suffered several other attempts, fell victim to thievery, and that he personally was held up at gunpoint. Lavelle argued that citizens must work with police to protect and develop their neighborhoods and best interests and make their communities "peaceful and economically progressive."

Sadly, a different kind of crime forced Lavelle's lending institution, Dwelling House Savings and Loan, to close its doors in 2009 - the institution was the victim of online crime and deposit fraud. Robert R. Lavelle's real estate business, Lavelle Real Estate, is still operating and an important part of the Hill District.

Lavelle was born in Tennessee on October 4, 1915, and passed away in Pittsburgh at the age of ninety-four on July 4, 2010. In between, he worked to correct injustice where he encountered it and helped improve the lives of the people who call the Hill District home. His legacy is the thousands of families he helped acquire a home when other institutions turned their backs on them, as well as the Lavelle family he left behind. The Hill District is a better place today because of his efforts in the past.

Images

Robert R. Lavelle and son Clipping from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette feature on Lavelle and Dwelling House Saving & Loan.  The article observed that Dwelling House "appears to thrive on a curious combination of liberal social ideals, Christian dogma and conservative economic gospel." Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Date: February 13, 1990.
Magazine Cover, 1982 Cover story from national publication Christianity Today on Robert Lavelle's work and its basis in his religious principles. Source: Christianity Today Date: April 23, 1982
Group Portrait Robert R. Lavelle (far right) with Jesse Jackson (center) and other Civil Rights leaders Source: Charles "Teenie" Harris Collection, Carnegie Museum of Art Creator: Charles "Teenie" Harris Date: c. 1968-1973

Location

2909 Centre Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Metadata

Julie Bowman, “Robert R. Lavelle,” Hill District Digital History, accessed July 20, 2024, https://hillhistory.org/items/show/10.