Girl’s dream of a new home — and a backyard — comes true
By Soyia Ellison
NEW YORK CITY — Nine-year-old Maya Tsou has big ideas for her family’s new Habitat home in Queens.
“I’m very excited to have my own room,” she says. “I’ve got my decoration plans all figured out. I think I’m going to have maybe four parts — maybe a little reading zone on one side with a little comfortable chair and a bookshelf, and on the other side can be a bed. And the next parts could be a science lab or an art studio.”
“Oh,” she adds a moment later, “I forgot to say. I’m also very excited about the backyard.”
A backyard means that she and her beloved beagle, Snoopy, will finally get to live under the same roof.
At the moment, Maya and her parents, Billy and Anna, live in a rent-controlled apartment building in Midtown that doesn’t allow pets. Snoopy lives with Anna’s mother, about two blocks away.
“We have no space for the dog, and now we have a baby,” Maya says. “It’s going to be nice when we live together.”
The baby she’s referring to is her brother, Layne, who was born in July.
‘We were kind of stuck’
Since his arrival, Maya has had to sleep on the pullout sofa in the living room with her dad, while her mother and little brother try to get some sleep in the apartment’s single bedroom.
The Tsous’ entire place is only 560 square feet. Billy and Anna have slept in the living room since Maya was about 3 so that she could have her own space.
“It’s tiny,” Billy says, “but we make do with what we’ve got.”
Their new three-bedroom home, which is being rehabilitated during October’s Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project, will be nearly three times the size of the apartment. The Tsous are excited about the extra space. But they’re even more excited about being homeowners.
“Homeownership in New York City,” Billy says, shaking his head. “It is unreachable by most people.”
Billy immigrated to America from Taiwan when he was 13; Anna moved here from Russia when she was 12. He bounced between relatives in Long Island and Queens, while she and her mother settled in the apartment where the couple still lives today.
“I married into the apartment,” jokes Billy.
They met while studying at the Institute of Audio Research and married in 2005. Anna stays home with the kids while Billy works as an audio-visual engineer in Morgan Stanley’s multimedia department.
In another city, they might be able to afford a home. But not in New York.
It’s really hard to be able save up, because everything in New York is so pricey,” says Anna. “We were kind of stuck.”
‘A backyard is a total dream’
Then Billy learned about Habitat during a conversation with a friend who works for Habitat for Humanity New York City. His friend told him about Habitat’s no-interest loans and sweat-equity program, and Billy went to an informational meeting. Now he’s just months away from fulfilling a dream that once seemed impossible.
Billy is using his remaining vacation days of 2013 so that he can work on his home during the Carter Work Project.
“I’ve been obsessively watching those DIY networks,” he confesses, “just to get an idea of what’s to come.”
Both Billy and Anna are dreaming up projects for their backyard.
“A backyard is a total dream,” says Anna. “It’s great. We’ll have our dog there running around …”
“Yeah,” Billy chimes in. “And I sort of have a wannabe green thumb. I love growing things. Our windowsill is kind of messy with my plants right now. … We want to get a little jungle gym for the kids. The area doesn’t really have any playgrounds.”
“I’m not really the playground type,” Maya reassures him.
After six years on a sofa, the adult Tsous are looking forward to sleeping in a real bed in their own room. But they’re most excited about what the home will offer their children.
“I want Maya to have space for her books,” Anna says, “where she could do her homework uninterrupted.”
Maya recently started fourth grade, and she loves to play piano and read chapter books. When she grows up, she says, she wants to be a veterinarian and a nature conservationist.
What better place for a budding nature conservationist to start than in her own backyard?