Cover Story

A wonderful life

"A wonderful life" Continued...

Issue: "Lavelle's wonderful life," Dec. 25, 2004

Urban homeowners, he notes, "have a stake in the land where they are. . . . They not only want to stay out of trouble, but they also want to keep that kind of trouble from coming into their area. In the suburban areas, where home ownership is 95 percent, there is no question about the city services being excellent. The homeowners demand it, and they pay for it."
He also sees a kind of spiritual or moral benefit in ownership, as people become responsible for meeting their mortgage payments and keeping up the property: "They are more stable families. . . . They have something to pass on to their children. They become the taxpayers for the police and fire protection and schools."

Mr. Lavelle's work with Dwelling House has been an odd mixture of traditional banking duties and social work in a neighborhood where more than half the families are single-parent, and where drug traffic, along with other crime, takes a toll. He attends to technical business matters involving interest rates and mortgages: "I still have to have all this technical knowledge to run these businesses. I know about the laws of supply and demand, diminishing return . . . I know them and have to observe them."

Added to the mix is the social work, as he has worked evenings and weekends with customers who fall behind on their mortgage payments. Dwelling House has tended to foreclose less quickly than many traditional lending institutions, working with the borrowers toward the goal of ownership, emphasizing family budget matters and the priority of a good name.

Sometimes he winds up delivering what amounts to a sermon about character qualities: "I know you and I know that you have concern for these children, that you did something for them when you provided this house. We made this loan to you. You signed that you would pay on the first of the month. Your children do need this roof over their head. But they also need a parent with integrity, who's going to be an example of knowing his obligation, keeping his word."
Mr. Lavelle was supposed to die 25 years ago after a heart attack, but he overcame the medical predictions. He has also lived in opposition to expert opinion in other ways. In a business dominated by profit motive, Dwelling House helps needy families and still makes a small profit most years. In the midst of banking consolidation and mergers across state lines, Dwelling House has stayed relatively small at $20 million in assets so as to help the poor and needy in one city.
He has trained in integrity a son and namesake, Robert M. Lavelle, who is now president of the company, while the elder Mr. Lavelle has the title of executive vice president. The son joined his father after serving in the Peace Corps in Nepal. He offered a year of service and has been there 32 years. With a master's degree, he could make more money somewhere else, but he appreciates the opportunities that the small scale of Dwelling House provides. "Growth distances one from being able to provide personal service," the younger Mr. Lavelle says. "The bigger you are, the less likely you are to meet people's needs."

Both father and son get some of their inspiration from the Good Samaritan story of the Bible, as they attempt to help families wounded by a mixture of poverty, drug or alcohol abuse, and cross-generational single-parenting. Like the Good Samaritan, they try to go the extra mile, with a mixture of compassion and discipline with accountability.

The elder Mr. Lavelle offered one recent example: a woman abusing drugs who was delinquent in payments to another lending institution and facing foreclosure. Her adult daughter, with one child of her own, was living with the mother and wanted to keep the property in the family. She asked Mr. Lavelle for help, and he was able to keep the house from being foreclosed. She in turn wrote, "Thank you for trusting in me. This experience has become one of the most life-changing events in my life."

Though the lending side of the business is limited to the Pittsburgh area, the organization attracts savings accounts from individuals and families in almost every state in the nation. Savers see Dwelling House as a ministry and earn a savings rate usually a point or two below the normal market rate.

Dwelling House applies Scripture in another unusual way, providing small savings accounts for prisoners. Mr. Lavelle winds up helping some of them outside the traditional duties of a banker as well. One inmate recently wrote that he had enrolled in some business classes. "I took your advice and enrolled myself in a college course of accounting," the inmate told Mr. Lavelle. "That was the best suggestion one could have given me because now I am beginning to understand how assets equal liability and capital or owner equity."
Dwelling House has resisted the lure to gain assets through high-yield offerings to savers. That willingness to stick to its core business helped Dwelling House survive the 1980s, when many other savings and loans attracted bigger deposits but later could not meet their obligations because of speculative investments. Dwelling House has avoided higher-yield certificates of deposit so as to keep its lending rates to needy families in affordable range.
And Mr. Lavelle has resisted the lure to retire. Even at 89 years old now, he stays active in the business and walks 30 to 45 minutes a day, usually about a mile. "I used to do 10 pushups and now I do three," he adds. "I still do 10 sit-ups." The exercise comes after daily morning Bible reading. "I still read through the Bible every year. . . . It's amazing how everything comes new in the Bible, in relationship to my everyday life."
Like George Bailey in the movie It's a Wonderful Life, Mr. Lavelle has given of himself to other people. But he no longer does so to earn the praise of other people. He does so out of gratitude and obedience to the One whose birthday Christians celebrate on Dec. 25.
George Bailey: "Merry Christmas, movie house! Merry Christmas, Emporium! Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!"
-Russ Pulliam is an Indiana columnist. For an academic study of Mr. Lavelle's work, see Robert Wauzzinski's The Transforming Story of Dwelling House Savings and Loan: A Pittsburgh Bank's Fight Against Urban Poverty (2003)

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.

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