Jose and Elizabeth de la Barra work hard and don't complain. They met on the job -- he repairs medical equipment and she's a medical assistant -- and now they're raising four kids. Jose's parents have moved in with them as well.
It's a struggle. They put in long hours, and still, Jose says, "you're barely making it." But sometimes, if the baby is quiet, the de la Barras settle down in front of one of those reality-TV shows in which designers and builders swoop in and turn your tired old place into something you could never afford.
"You watch on TV like, 'I wish that was me,' " Jose says. "And then, it happens to us. And it turns into a nightmare."
A new Discovery Channel series, "Garage Takeover," is set to appear beginning in December, and its producers are roaming the Washington area, spending three days at each of 35 lucky families' garages, converting them into rec rooms, wine cellars or whatever the owner's dream might be.
Jose, 29, saw the ad for the show, applied and got chosen. It was the best break the family had had since Liz, 31, got into Montgomery County's affordable-housing program in 2000 and scored this spanking new house in the Hurley Ridge development in Boyds, at the edge of sprawl.
The de la Barras knew their homeowners association had to approve any renovation, so they applied to its architectural control committee for permission to convert their garage into living space. They expected no problem; after all, other houses in the development had made the switch.
Hearing nothing, the family went ahead with the makeover. On June 30, a crew of 15 showed up and spent eight hours clearing the garage, sorting everything into discard, save and giveaway piles. They cut a hole in the back of the house for a window, put in a floor, started on the drywall. When it was over, Jose and Liz would have what he called "a dream relax room, with a big plasma TV, a massage chair, bar, a big aquarium for the baby to look at."
Then, at 2:30 p.m., while Jose was taking a sledgehammer to a big old bathtub for the benefit of the cameras, he got a call from the association's manager, ordering that all work on the garage cease or legal action would commence. It turns out that the committee had turned down the application, but the family had not received the denial letter.
The TV producers apologized, packed up and vamoosed, leaving the couple with shocked, crying children, a hole in their house and a big mess in their garage.
Which is where things stand today. The producers say they'd be happy to finish the makeover -- if the association approves. The de la Barras went to the board this week to appeal the decision. A verdict is expected in a few days.
They say board members seemed intent on quashing their dream, even if, as Jose says, "this is entirely within our walls. It's not affecting anybody."
The de la Barras suspect they were singled out for denial because they live in one of the development's affordable units and because, as Liz says, "my children are mixed, biracial, and my husband's Hispanic. The board members are rich, white folks."
"They talk down to us," Jose says. "They don't even acknowledge us."
Or perhaps the association was just being ornery, as such associations so often are. Like many homeowners, Jose and Liz found out the hard way about the arbitrary ways of associations that lord over everything from paint colors to barbecues. The rules ban lawn ornaments, yet they see lawns with Buddhas and waterfalls. The rules say the board must approve conversion of garages, yet they see garages that have been remodeled without permission.
A former member of the board, Mark Amberg, is urging the association to approve the home improvement because it would boost property values, win publicity for the community and let the family "take advantage of an opportunity of a lifetime."
The association's president and its lawyer, Jeffrey van Grack, did not return calls. Its manager, Mike Potter, said he "can't discuss that matter."
Jose still hopes to get the "Garage Takeover" crew back. If that doesn't happen, he'll try to change the association's ways. "Our kids are depressed," he says. "They see people treat us like we're second-class. These kids look up to me. I have to show them I'm not going to get pushed around."
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