The staff of LifeVenture Buy Choice Homes (from left to right), Brettney Duck, Charlise Smith, Janice Powell-Harris, Mary Hester, and Sheldon Oliver
The homeownership gap in the United States is a widely documented reality. According to a report from the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group released this year, only 30.1% of Black families in Pittsburgh can say they own their home, compared to 52.9% of white families. On top of that, many of those homes have a much lower sale or appraisal value when compared to Pittsburgh averages.
Starting out at the Shadyside office of Coldwell Banker back in 1978, Robert C. Epps has been in the Pittsburgh real estate market long enough to witness these disparities—since a time when redlining and discrimination were prevalent for minorities seeking homeownership.
“There weren’t many Black people in real estate then,” Epps remembered. “I was the only Black person at the Coldwell Banker office, but that worked to my advantage a lot of times because a Black person would come to the office, and they would give them to me.”
Epps eventually made the transition to Coldwell Banker in Murrysville where he worked with Alice Duffus, who was then the manager of Coldwell Banker. Mr. Epps and Ms. Duffus had a great working relationship over the years and when the owner of another real estate company called Choice Homes was looking to sell in 1992, Epps and Duffus bought the Penn Hills office. Ever since, they have been offering realty and appraisal services to low to moderate income individuals and families across Pittsburgh, gaining notoriety in the Black community and beyond.
Beyond Choice Homes, Epps was active in the Realtors Association of Metro Pittsburgh, serving as the first Black president of the Equity Employment Opportunity Commission Committee. In that role, he traveled to conferences around the state and country, gaining credibility as a housing advocate throughout the real estate industry.
Over the course of his career, Epps started to notice the fruits of this labor as opportunities began to grow for minorities.
“Opportunities have expanded, as more [Black] people got involved,” he said. “The main change has been access to money, to mortgages.”
While Epps is considered by many to be a pioneer in the Pittsburgh real estate market, he wouldn’t put it that way.
“I just wanted to live and enjoy life, work and be honest,” Epps said.
The launch of LifeVenture Buy Choice Homes
At the age of 80, Epps is ready to focus more on the living part of that equation and is selling his business to ELDI’s go-to affordable homeownership specialist Mary Hester, alongside her partners entrepreneur Sheldon Oliver and Charlise Smith, executive director of the economic and housing justice nonprofit WAVE.
Hester is the founder of the real estate advocacy consultancy LifeVenture Real Estate Solutions and co-founder of Black Excellence in Real Estate, a local cultural initiative in the real estate community that empowers and celebrates the efforts of Black generational wealth building through homeownership, education, and real estate investing. She has built a reputation across Pittsburgh for helping make homeownership attainable for minorities and low-income individuals, working with WAVE and Catapult Greater Pittsburgh to provide homeownership education in addition to leveraging local funding sources to create affordability for each buyer.
With this acquisition, Hester is realizing a long-held dream and taking that work to the next level.
“I always thought that this was something I would like to do,” she said. “After so many years working with families to build Black generational wealth, this opportunity presented itself, and we have the chance to take on a great organization with a history that is everything we stand for.”
Making homeownership accessible through education
The new company, LifeVenture Buy Choice Homes incorporates the vision and history of Choice Homes and integrates LifeVenture’s core values. Hester and her partners plan to build on Epps’ legacy, creating a boutique agency with homeowner education and wealth building at the core.
“Our vision is to provide an exceptional real estate experience while providing opportunities for wealth building and shaping an industry of next-level real estate professionals,” said Hester.
To achieve that vision, LifeVenture Buy Choice Homes plans to recruit real estate professionals who excel in providing a client-focused experience and agents who share similar values. They will continue to partner with Catapult Greater Pittsburgh and WAVE to provide homeownership courses to potential clients.
“It’s not just about a commission—it’s about being the expert that shares the tools and resources that build strong, stable communities for future generations,” Hester explained.
As for Epps, he is pleased with the purchase and the cultural momentum that is [Black] homeownership and wealth.
“She’s ready,” he said. “It was a good ride for me.”