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.
“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.”