Habitat’s Family Services Director Loves Making the Dream of Home Ownership Come True for Others
“I love it here.”
Family Services Director Meka Stewart repeats those words again and again in talking about Habitat for Humanity Peninsula and Greater Williamsburg.
For years, the Air Force veteran counseled individuals and families trying to overcome the barriers to home ownership.
At the local Habitat affiliate, she says, “I actually see the light at the end of a tunnel I’ve been trying to guide people through. I get to be on the other side saying, “Congratulations! Here are your keys! You made it!”
What a feeling for a woman whose dedication to housing affordability was shaped by her early years growing up in Chicago. Meka and her younger sister lived in an apartment with their mother on the city’s south side surrounded by parks, beaches and lake views.
Despite having access to those beautiful views, the sisters chose to spend almost all their down time in another neighborhood where their cousins and aunt lived in public housing.
“I was raised in the projects,” Stewart says. “We would go there for family and fun. It wasn’t what you see on TV. We didn’t have any fear. It was a family environment where the village supported and looked out for the kids.”
Stewart’s aunt was an advocate for affordable and safe housing, actively engaged, and always fighting to improve the conditions and resources for the families who lived in public housing.
“She was a champion for fair housing before I even knew what that meant,” Stewart says.
It’s a cause Stewart would later adopt as her own after a decorated career in the military. She joined the Air Force at 17, impressed by the inspiring commercials and won over by the savvy recruiter who visited her high school.
“I thought of it as an adventure and a way to become self-sufficient,” says Stewart, who enlisted in the United States Air Force as Security Forces and retired 24 years later as a master sergeant, responsible for the management of the Commander’s education and training programs. Shortly before her retirement, Stewart connected with the vice president at the Urban League of Hampton Roads and was inspired by their mission.
Stewart then joined the Urban League as a housing counselor, a role that allowed her to help people make more informed housing decisions. After three years there, she joined another nonprofit, Hampton Roads Community Action Program, which serves Hampton and Newport News, where the economic challenges differed from her previous position in Virginia Beach. The need was greater in Newport News, and Stewart was again a teacher, educating renters, potential homebuyers and homeowners facing eviction on financial literacy and foreclosure prevention.
In 2022, Stewart was blessed to become part of the team at Habitat for Humanity Peninsula and Greater Williamsburg, where both the culture and the mission of building homes, communities and hope align with her values.
“In the other two jobs, I was preparing people to get to the point of buying a home,” she says. “Now I’m at the end where, when they get to me, they’re ready to buy their first home.”
Every April, the local Habitat opens its application process for 30 days, a cycle Stewart manages. Last year, the affiliate received a record 250 applications. Actual selection of the future homeowners is done by a separate Family Selection Committee (not Habitat staff), but prior to that, Stewart reviews every application to ensure qualifications are met.
Many applications are received incomplete or applicants don’t respond to requests for more information. Stewart encourages applicants to fill out all the pages of the application and review the income requirements to the first-time Homebuyer Program. Qualified families must have good credit and steady income.
“Address anything negative on your credit before you apply,” she suggests.
The need and demand for affordable housing locally outweighs the availability — Habitat only has resources to build a finite number of houses per year.
“It’s not a quick fix,” Stewart says. “We’re building from the ground up, and we’re selling houses. We don’t give away anything. You have to qualify for a mortgage, and the process can take anywhere from 12 to 18 months after you’re selected.”
Stewart never tires of the dedication ceremonies when the new homebuyers receive the symbolic keys and pledge to pay the Habitat mortgage, which puts the money back into the community so more homes can be built.
“That’s the joy,” she says.
Outside of her professional life, Stewart enjoys time with her son, who owns and operates a large-scale graphic installation business in San Diego, and she’s always up for the next getaway. Last year, she visited Martha’s Vineyard and Hawaii and is preparing for her next trip later this year to Montreal.
But the bulk of her time is spent advocating for affordable housing. In addition to her work at Habitat, she is a property manager for Air Force members on deployment or stationed overseas. She’s been doing that work since 2010. Stewart is proud to own her own home in Hampton, a feeling she’s passionate about everyone experiencing. That makes her job at Habitat such a perfect fit. She adds again, “I love it here.”