When the black Lincoln Navigator rolls up outside and the security detail fans out in the darkened front yard, the 13-year-old Colombian girl who shares a wall with Muriel E. Bowser knows to turn down the telenovela before her father asks.
The mayor of the nation’s capital has surely had a long day and needs her rest, Hober reminds his daughter. The family, who recently bought the other half of a modest brick duplex where Bowser has lived since 2001, may be physically close, but they should be the least of her worries, Hober says.
In a city where proximity to power is an obsession, the residential shoulder-rubbing under this shared roof may take it to another level. It includes a smoking ban in the front yard and impromptu police visits for accidentally stepping across the property line or even just running quickly out the back door.
And it begins with the fact that a city defined by the official residence for the U.S. president does not offer one to the mayor. As a result, five miles north of the White House, an experiment in egalitarianism is playing out — with an overlay of the country’s modern obsession with security.
Hober, 52, his wife, Flor, 50, and their two children — Carlos, 22, and Karen, 13 — are a family of Colombian refugees who moved in next to Bowser in April. They do not have enough money to buy living room furniture — let alone the around-the-clock security bubble surrounding their home.
The Washington Post is withholding the family’s surname because they fear for the safety of relatives in Colombia, which they fled as political refugees more than three years ago.
On a recent evening, as the heavy aroma of a simmering pot of meat and beans wafted through an open doorway toward the mayor’s side, Flor readied to leave for a graveyard shift cleaning office cubicles. She chuckled when her movements triggered a bank of security lights in the front yard.
“It’s wonderful to have the mayor right here,” Flor said. “This would never happen in Bogota.”
In fact, it rarely happens quite like this anywhere.
In New York, the grand wraparound porch of the mayor’s Gracie Mansion could hold hundreds of people. In London, the 18th-century mayoral residence has a portico and six towering Corinthian columns. In Bogota, the mayor’s marbled home is in the palatial Plaza de Bolívar.
For now, in the District, the mayor’s surroundings are Riggs Park, a working-class, mostly African American neighborhood of tiny brick homes near the city’s northern tip where the average household income is $55,000 and barely 3 in 10 adult residents have gone to college.
In the District’s four decades of home rule, it is among the most modest of digs of any chief executive of the city — save a few stretches in the 1980s when Marion Barry was relegated to a hotel after running afoul of his wife.
Such has been the lot of D.C. mayors since 2003, when a philanthropic foundation’s plan to build a $50 million mayoral manse was scuttled amid concerns that it was an outlandish display for a city struggling to balance its budget.
Mayoral abodes since have included an H Street NE condominium, a brick expanse in 16th Street Heights and a corner lot east of the Anacostia River in Congress Heights. They’ve all been the privately owned homes of the mayors who lived in them.
In the nine months since Bowser (D) was elected to the $200,000-a-year job as mayor, she has chosen to remain in the 1,000-square-foot half duplex she purchased as a 30-year-old government bureaucrat.
Bowser, 43, has plenty of reasons to want to stay, not the least of which may be the manageable mortgage of a home purchased in 2000 for $125,000.
Her neighborhood in the city’s Ward 4 helped propel the fifth-generation Washingtonian onto the D.C. Council — launching her political career. Her home is a short drive from her parents, and over the years she has outfitted it with flower beds and closet shelving from Home Depot.
What she may not have predicted is that new neighbors would be moving in just as her life — and home — were undergoing dramatic changes. The day after her inauguration, and several months after the death of her longtime neighbor, the other half of her duplex went up for sale.
During those frigid early days of her administration in January, city security officials were preparing to erect an elaborate guard booth in the front yard. They were also planning for a six-foot wooden fence, cameras, lights and sound sensors in the back yard.
A real estate agent showing the property to Hober and his family pointed to a police cruiser outside and mentioned, somewhat casually, that the mayor lives next door.
Their purchase made for a stark divide.
On one side, with an appointment book filled with dignitaries, celebrities and visits to her personal trainer, Bowser has reached a pinnacle of American politics as mayor of the U.S. capital city.
On the other side, Hober and Flor are chasing their own version of the American Dream. They took out a government-backed loan for nearly all of the home’s $350,000 selling price. To pay the $2,000-a-month mortgage, he works a day shift and she pulls a night shift as office cleaners downtown. Carlos contributes about half his wages from a job as a cashier.
Their monthly housing bill is more affordable than the median monthly rent in the District for a single-bedroom apartment. That scares some of the neighbors in a traditionally working-class neighborhood who see change as a sign of gentrification and higher prices that could wipe out the longtime character of their neighborhood.
“The neighbors, they were saying, ‘Don’t sell the house, don’t sell the house.’ But I had to,” said Alice Harrington, the daughter of Tamah Williams, who was Bowser’s longtime neighbor. Harrington said she debated the decision for months and told Bowser before she put the house on the market.
The Colombians, D.C. police and the mayor are all still feeling their way through their exceptionally cozy living conditions.
A Colombian friend of the family attending a cookout stepped off the porch in the wrong direction — toward Bowser’s door — and drew a confrontation with police. It took a while to clear up, the family said, because of a language barrier with the officer stationed on the front lawn.
Asked about the incident, Michael Czin, Bowser’s communications director, said the administration and D.C. police would not comment on the mayor’s security.
Another friend found that lighting a cigarette is not allowed — even on the Colombian side, across the 18-inch spit of grass separating the two front yards.
When Carlos recently bolted out the back door late to catch the bus for his job at CVS in Columbia Heights, police officers were at the door within seconds to ask whether everyone inside was safe.
Living inside the surveillance bubble comes with its perks. Nobody in Hober’s family is quite sure anymore where the house keys are. They see little need to close the windows or even to lock the door with officers on post around the clock.
“I just tell people, ‘Do not knock on the wrong door, please,’ ” Hober said. “Other than that, we do not worry about security at all.”
For a political refugee who used to have good reason to fear for his life, that’s an astounding development.
Hober successfully sought asylum in the United States five years ago after his parents and brother were slain outside Bogota, he said. His father was a bullfighter and well known in his rural community. Hober told authorities that he could identify the killers. Police did nothing, he said, and he soon felt he had to leave for his own safety.
The State Department, whose policy is not to disclose personal information about asylum-seekers and refugees, declined to confirm the family’s status.
After Hober worked in the District for two years saving money for airline tickets, Flor, Carlos and Karen joined him.
Carlos and Karen have both learned English in the three years since their arrival and said that they and at least their mother, who is also trying to learn English, hope to obtain citizenship within five years.
Walking to or from her waiting SUV, or when they occasionally meet eyes when Bowser is in the back yard, the mayor smiles or waves, the siblings said.
The relationship is more distant than the connection Bowser had with Williams, who died in 2014 after years of infirmity.
When Bowser heard Williams crying at times through the wall, she picked up the phone and called Williams’s daughter at her home about 20 miles away in Maryland.
“There was 24-hour care, but sometimes Muriel would call and say, ‘Alice, I think you should come over here, she doesn’t sound too good,’ ” Harrington said.
When Williams died, Bowser returned home early from a trip to Philadelphia to speak at the funeral. In her remarks, Bowser joked that Williams sometimes called the then-mayoral candidate’s parents when she heard the door open next door, worried it wasn’t a time of day when the council member should be home.
At the funeral, Harrington said Bowser imitated Williams’s oft-repeated idea for a fix: “Are you sure you just don’t want me to have a key?”
New neighbor Carlos, meanwhile, who is juggling his cashier job as well as part-time work as a pharmacy assistant, night classes and, soon, an IT internship, said that from his one encounter with the mayor, he retains hope that he, too, will come to know her like a true neighbor.
“One time she told me she would like to have coffee and talk like a regular neighbor,” he said. “But it never happened because we were too busy and she was never there. I hope it does.”