George Bailey: "Just remember this, Mr. Potter: that this rabble you're talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?"
That line from the most familiar Christmas film of all, It's a Wonderful Life, shows what a fictional institution, the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, was all about. But in the Hill District of Pittsburgh a real institution, Dwelling House Savings and Loan, has for almost half a century helped about 20 families each year get a mortgage. During that time home ownership rates in the largely African-American area have risen from about 10 percent to more than 45 percent.
Dwelling House's key executive and then inspiring force throughout that period, Robert R. Lavelle, now 89 years old, has helped minority families to become part of an ownership society in a measurable way. Harder to quantify is the difference he has made by teaching biblical principles along the way. Like George Bailey, he cannot know of all the lives he has benefited, because he stays busy getting ready to help the next person who comes through the door.
In helping renters to become owners, Dwelling House has tackled a key social problem that a Pew Foundation study recently noted: African-Americans and Hispanics tend to get hit harder in recessions because of a lack of assets, including homes. The Pew study from U.S. Census data put white household average net worth at $88,651, Hispanic households at $7,932, and black households at $5,988.
Clarence: "One man's life touches so many others, when he's not there it leaves an awfully big hole."
Mr. Lavelle began running Dwelling House in an unusual way in 1957. He went to the organization to ask for a loan for a customer for his Lavelle Real Estate Company. The Dwelling House managers did not have enough assets to lend him the money, but they offered to turn the business over to him to see if he could make something of it in a declining area.
He says he wanted to help people in need in those early years, but as a humanist trying to do good works. He had all the outward appearances of being a Christian and had grown up in a Christian home, the son of a Church of God evangelist. His father had died when he was young, and his praying Christian mother would gently remind him of a need for something more than good works.
"It was the effort to attain goodness on my own strength that led me to become a Christian," he recalled. "I had quit doing all the things you were supposed to quit doing. I had quit smoking. I had quit drinking. I didn't have to quit running around with other women; I always had only one wife. I guess I was one of those good Pharisees. I did good things, yet I didn't have peace, and I wasn't happy. I couldn't quite identify it, but it seemed like I wasn't getting credit for the things I felt I should be getting credit for."
In the early 1960s he turned back to the faith of his mother and father, not long after his mother's death. "After my mother died I realized that I had never asked Christ to come into my life, because I felt I could do it myself. I had two businesses and a lovely wife and two children and I was successful in business. Yet I wasn't happy so I decided to surrender my life to Christ to seek the abundant life."
Part of the abundant life was a business/ministry opportunity to help low-income families. In contrast to the usual nonprofit legal status of faith-based social services, Dwelling House provides traditional social services through a profitable business. Though the business has suffered occasional robberies, he resists advice to put up bars on windows or have armed guards. He wants young people in the neighborhood to be able to see a normal business at work, rather than an armed fortress.
Mr. Lavelle has offered the kind of long-term personal presence required for success in helping needy families move from a culture of rental property to the responsibility of ownership of a home. Government-supported housing programs tend to emphasize rental subsidies. Even the government programs geared to ownership have a hard time sustaining the kind of impact Mr. Lavelle has had because government funding tends to run its course in two- to four-year cycles.
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)