Building a better community, one house at a time

by Kerrie Kennedy

Keller Williams Memorial broker Melissa Hunzeker and her husband Ryan have built four different Houston-area homes over the past five years. No, they’re not developers or builders, nor did they contract the homes for themselves. Instead, this couple actually worked on the builds themselves — not to mention supplying some cold, hard cash — all in an effort to help Houston families in need.

About five years ago, Hunzeker and her husband got involved in a Houston branch of Habitat for Humanity, and it took off from there.

“We love Houston and this was just a natural tie-in for us,” she said. “We help people buy and sell their homes every day. So to be able to help people who aren’t in the position to do that on their own is just so rewarding.”

From framing to drywall and siding to landscaping, Hunzeker has done it all and then some. “It really makes you appreciate the professionals, because this is hard work,” she said. “There is some heavy labor involved in these builds; there’s just no way around it. But Habitat has supervisors on site and you don’t have to bring any knowledge or tools to the project. They literally give you everything you need to do the work.”

And the work is a big part of why the program is successful, according to Hunzeker. “We love Habitat’s mission of ‘hand up, not handout.’ These families have to put in something like 300 hours of sweat equity. And it’s lovely that they build in the community where they’re going to live and don’t know which home is going to be theirs. They are literally building each others’ homes.”

Hunzeker estimates the cost of building a Habitat home (without the land) at about $60,000. Their contribution to sponsor a “build day” is $5,000 – plus their own labor. Earlier this month, Hunzeker worked on a site build where she did framing, siding and landscaping. “Framing is really impactful in my opinion, because you can see the results of your efforts right there. Landscaping – especially laying sod – is the hardest work I’ve ever done. Sod is so heavy, it’s unbelievable.”

Either way, it is a labor of love for Hunzeker. “Some of these people have been flood victims who just need a little bit of help,” she said. “We have a lack of affordable, safe housing here in Houston. This is an easy way to do so much for so little.”

A recent study conducted by UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, The Effect of Stable Housing on Educational Outcomes and Childhood Well-being, researched the effects of obtaining homeownership through Habitat for Humanity and its impact on childhood well-being.  The study confirmed the profound impact of stable housing on childhood and family outcomes, finding that:

  • Living in a Habitat home significantly improves kids’ educational outcomes
  • Habitat students missed less school and encountered fewer problems while at school
  • Families living in Habitat homes reduced their reliance on social services
  • Families felt that living in a Habitat home both strengthened familial relationships and improved their lives

Hunzeker said the experience has opened her eyes to other ways she can serve the community in Houston. “There are a lot of different ways – either with money or time – that you can really make a big impact,” she said. “I now volunteer with the refugee community. We have a large refugee community in Houston, and [many of them] live in substandard housing.”

Yet for Hunzeker, the biggest impact has been on her own life. “I really get to know these families,” she said. “We stay in touch. It’s so nice to be able help the city and an industry that’s given so much to me.”

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