The Economics of Stephen Fuller How a wonky academic became a major player in the local real-estate business

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Last September, we sat so long in his heavily upholstered office on the ground floor of a Rosslyn condo building—he lives with his third wife, an executive at Human Genome Sciences, in an upstairs unit with sweeping views of the Washington Monument—that the room’s three chiming clocks went off multiple times before I left, forcing brief pauses in the conversation. (There are two others in his residence.)

“I used to think I could educate people,” Fuller says, his legs crossed, in an armchair. “So when I’d get the same reporter calling me over again, I’d explain why unemployment’s going to go up, and how you understand whether it’s a problem or not.”

“I go through this, and then I get the same question the next month,” he continues. “I learned a long time ago, your job is to figure out whatever it is you’re writing about and move on to the next story, you’re not supposed to remember everything you write about. But I think about you as a student, and I try to educate you.”

His actual pupils, of course, are a different story. He teaches a handful of grad students each semester, many of whom are from foreign countries. He piles on the reading assignments every week. When they’re less than chatty in class, he easily fills the silences, walking engagingly and patiently through a regional economy’s component parts.

But Fuller’s professorial mien in the classroom doesn’t mean that his center at George Mason shies away from normativity. One of their causes has long been the need for more affordable and workforce housing. Neither Fuller nor his partner John McClain—who does a fair amount of speaking engagements and media hits himself—are shy about telling local jurisdictions they need to allow more units per acre, and developers that they need to build them.

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“I was totally not restrained from saying that the fact that housing prices have gone down, and the housing bubble burst and things got bad, we still have an issue in terms of providing enough housing to people that’s affordable who need to live close to where their jobs are,” McClain says. “So in terms of public policy, there’s still a lot of work to be done. The market hasn’t solved it for you, it’s still there.”

And sometimes, the NIMBY resistance really bothers them. From the window of his office in George Mason’s shiny new academic building in Clarendon, McClain points out one of the worst examples: A church-led, Arlington County-funded housing project that local groups had held up for five years on constitutional grounds. “It was really just because the local residents didn’t want more affordable housing,” McClain says.

It’s a struggle, sometimes, to get people to think of themselves as citizens of a region defined by its natural economic boundaries, not artificial political ones. It’s been Fuller’s life’s work, and he’s retiring soon. So he’s even more eager to get the message out.

“This city is laid out closer to Los Angeles. It’s an automobile-based city, it’s not a northeastern city,” Fuller says. “People have a hard time thinking urban. They don’t think they’re in a city with five and a half million people. They haven’t figured this out yet, that this is a big place. The future’s gonna happen, and we’re just not ready for it.”

Our Readers Say

What an interesting window into that world. Good work!
"This doesn’t mean that Fuller’s a shill for developers. "

shill
noun
2. a person who publicizes or praises something or someone for reasons of self-interest, personal profit, or friendship or loyalty.

"Then perhaps he's just an opportunist..."

op·por·tun·ist   
noun
1. one whose policy or practice, as in politics, business, or one's personal affairs, adapts actions, decisions, etc., to expediency or effectiveness regardless of the sacrifice of ethical principles.

"...or, as one person involved in the GW 2000 Campus Plan suggested, a..."

pros·ti·tute   
noun
3. a person who willingly uses his or her talent or ability in a base and unworthy way, usually for money.

With Steve Fuller, you only get the purported benefit side of the cost/benefit equation, never the costs, financial and otherwise.


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Dear Sir / Madam
My name is Ali Mussa Mwadini I am a male Zanzibar, Peace Activist & Executive Secretary Zanzibar Peace, Truth & Transparency Association ZPTTA NGO. I am appealing & requesting any one/company/ charitable group and foundation, who would kindly sponsor for my Cheap Economy Class Return Ticket. I am a Human Beeing and I need the Assistance. I am not in a position to Support myself, no my ZPTTA NGo is able to help me. Your Assistance will help me & the World Peace. If you have any problem with your Donation, Kindly please contact the Institute before sending your Assistance. The Institute will confirm & inform me. I have my Visa already. My pass port N0 is AS000572. Issued Zanzibar.

Truly speaking I am desperate. The time is running and I am not in a position to cover the costs. Please help me out, because Peace & Human Rights, is the key to all success. There is no success if there is no Peace in the World.
May God bless you all.

Kindly please find attached: Financial Application Letter

Thank you
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ZPTTANGO

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