Robert R. Lavelle, the man who made buying a home a reality for thousands of Pittsburgh’s African-Americans when racism and redlining made loans from traditional banks and mortgage lenders impossible, who wrote Bible verses on billing statements and who prayed for men who robbed his bank, has died. He was 94.
Lavelle passed away July 4, after having suffered a stroke on Father’s Day while giving the keynote address at Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church where he served as an elder, taught Sunday school and led a weekly Bible study for nearly 50 years.
ROBERT R. LAVELLE
The founder of Lavelle Real Estate and the past president and CEO of Dwelling House Savings and Loan, Robert Lavelle was revered throughout Pittsburgh’s Black community, especially in the Hill District where he lived and ran his businesses.
Lavelle essentially rescued Dwelling House from near ruin in 1957. At that time his real estate company was seeking a mortgage on a nearby property, but was told the loan association could not comply due to withdrawals exceeding liquid assets. Open only a few days of the month, Lavelle suggested they open full time, that they share space with his firm, so they could afford to staff the then Dwelling House Building and Loan Association until it grew.
And grow it did, slowly, at first. But after qualifying to become federally insured in the late 1960s, its assets grew from $130,000 to more than $1 million in just two years.
And all the while, Dwelling House made the mortgage loans other banks would not, to African-Americans with poor credit, young African-Americans just starting out—and it held those loans to maturity rather than selling them. Dwelling House was closed by federal regulators in August after cyber thieves drained its capital accounts, leaving it unable to continue, but Lavelle Real Estate is still operative.
Tim Stevens, founder of the Black Political Empowerment Project, recalled Lavelle as a dear friend who was the first to inform him he’d been named executive director of the NAACP Pittsburgh Branch in 1970.
“He was there for me and he was there for the community. He was truly one of the people I respect most in Pittsburgh. It was an honor to have known him and to call him a friend,” said Stevens. “When Dwelling House closed, I was extremely sad. In this city, they’re always building buildings, but nobody’s building people. That’s what Bob Lavelle did, what Dwelling House did. He will be greatly missed.”
Pittsburgh Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle said his grandfather died peacefully and his grandmother and the rest of his family are doing well.
“She has a lot of family and friends around her, and my grandfather was in good care and spirits right to the end, carrying on conversations about God, society, and what we need to do to make the world better,” he said. “I will remember that he was a servant of the Lord and of the community. He always fought the good fight, and was always talking and sharing. He was a very hard-working man who advocated for his community every day. His is a great legacy to try to follow.”
In addition to his grandson, Lavelle is survived by his wife, Adah; sons Robert M. Lavelle and John F. Lavelle, both of Pittsburgh; and granddaughter Jaquelyn Thom. He was preceded in death by all seven of his siblings.
Viewing is scheduled for July 8 from 2-9 p.m. at Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church, 1000 Bryn Mawr Rd., in the Hill District. Services will be held July 9 at 11 a.m. at the church. Arrangements are being handled by Samuel J. Jones Funeral Home.
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