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Mother of two opens the door to a safer, happier future

The Huambo familyNine-year old José can’t resist clowning around with his mother, Esther, and sister, Dalila, as they pose for a family portrait in the courtyard of their Habitat condo complex in Brooklyn.  All photos by William Neumann

By Soyia Ellison 

BROOKLYN, New York — The doorbell is ringing in Esther Huambo’s condo. For the third time in less than an hour. 

She just laughs. 

“This is really an open door for everybody,” Esther says as her daughter lets in a girl from downstairs who needs some homework help. “That’s one of the beauties of Habitat. Being able to work with your neighbors, you really do establish that relationship with them. 

“You really do become a family.” 

Esther met her neighbors in 2008, when they were all helping build the 41-unit complex they now call home. Since Esther moved in, her place has become an unofficial gathering spot. She hosts movie nights, birthday parties and Thanksgiving dinners. 

I have a social life, which I didn’t have before,” the 35-year-old said.  “I always had a lot of friends, but I never had a home to say, ‘Hey, you can come over for dinner.’ ” 

Esther (left) and Dalila look over some homework José brought home after his first day of school.

Room for everyone 

Before she became a Habitat homeowner, Esther and her two children, Dalila and José, shared a bedroom in her grandmother’s small apartment in the Cypress Hills housing project. 

“I had a king-sized bed,” she said, “and when you opened the door, the door would hit the bed.” 

Sharing a bed with her mother and little brother wasn’t much fun, said Esther’s daughter, Dalila, who is now 17. “José would sleep in the middle and kick me all the time, and there was, like, no privacy.” 

Dalila has her own room now, which she and her grandmother painted purple and black. José, 9, has the room next door, where he keeps his bike and miniature air hockey table. Esther has the room across the hall. 

“Never in a million years did I think I was going to get a three-bedroom place,” Esther said. “I have friends who live in Manhattan who have apartments no bigger than this living room.” 

The will to do the work 

Esther had just started a job in the bursar’s office at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy when her supervisor brought in a flier about a meeting Habitat had scheduled to present plans for a condo project in Brooklyn. She had never heard of Habitat, but she decided to attend the meeting. 

“We watched this presentation, and I said, ‘This is it. This is it,’ ” she recalled. “Because I had been praying for three years. I wanted a condo. I’d always wanted a condo.’’ 

Afterward, she introduced herself to Habitat NYC’s executive director. 

That was in October 2006. She didn’t move into her new home until November 2009. “I remember I shook his hand and said, ‘Pleased to meet you. I’m going to be a family partner.’ And he goes, ‘Oh my gosh, I love your spirit. Good luck to you.’ And I said, ‘It’s no luck. God brought me here.’ ” 

The three years in between were filled with hard work. First, she had to pay off about $12,000 of debt — student loans, credit card charges, past-due bills. Then, she had to complete 300 sweat-equity hours: driving nails, hanging sheetrock and painting walls. 

It didn’t take Esther long to determine she does not like working with her hands. 

“I hated it,” she said, laughing. “There’s no nice way to say it. I’m sorry. 

Neighbor Sharisse Gillus smiles as Esther talks about what a hard time she had working with tools when she helped build her condo.

“She loved it,” she added while pointing to her neighbor, Sharisse Gillus, who dropped by with a homemade smoothie for Esther’s boyfriend, Javier. “Everybody else loved it. I hated it. Don’t ask me to drill anything. I have a newfound respect for construction workers.” 

But it was all worth it the day she signed the papers on her no-interest loan and could finally bid farewell to the Cypress Hills project. 

A place to feel safe 

Once, while she was living in Cypress Hills, she and her son were at the bus stop when bullets started flying. She dropped to the ground, cradling him beneath her. Another time, a man in her building set his girlfriend on fire, and the hallway outside her sixth-floor apartment filled with smoke and flames. She was so sure she was going to die, she called her daughter to say goodbye. 

Now she feels safe. 

She lives in a place where neighbors keep spare sets of keys for each other and watch each other’s dogs. Where kids play in a gated courtyard.  Where security cameras add an extra layer of protection. 

In this new environment, her family has flourished. 

Dalila is now a senior in high school and plans to study education at Hunter College next year. José is dreaming of a career as a real estate agent — or a chef. Esther is considering going back to school to study criminal justice so that she can start a family private-eye business. 

Reflecting on her new life, she is overwhelmed with gratitude. 

“This is a help,” she said, looking around her condo. “If it wasn’t for this blessing, I would probably still be in the projects or struggling — moving from apartment to apartment and place to place.”