Last year, I visited Montpelier, James Madison’s estate in Orange County, Virginia. I was fascinated by a decorative copy of the Declaration of Independence in the home’s drawing room. The version was created by a publisher named John Binns in 1819 in response to a wave of patriotism following the War of 1812. Only 100 of these are known to exist, and one recently sold at auction for $30,000.
It is not as valuable as an exact copy of the Declaration commissioned by then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in 1820. Adams, concerned over the deteriorating condition of the original, had William J. Stone, a friend and an engraver, create an exact copy of the Declaration on a copper plate. After three years of painstaking work, 201 versions printed on vellum were distributed to various dignitaries and government entities. This included two to former president James Madison, one of three surviving signers of the document. One of Madison’s copies is lost to history, but the other was discovered a few years ago wrapped up in a cardboard box in a Houston businessman’s office. He is a descendant of the president’s favorite nephew, who had been gifted the document by the childless Madison. Hidden, forgotten, and not seeing the light of day for 35 years, this rare official copy of the Declaration of Independence sold for over $1 million to a New York collector in 2018.
Also in 2018, almost 200 years after Stone’s work on the Declaration, the Metro Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG), a research group supported by 24 local jurisdictions, produced an important document declaring the need for this region to build 100,000 more housing units than planned to accommodate a growing workforce. This would “address the region’s housing need from an economic competitiveness and transportation infrastructure standpoint,” according to MWCOG executive director Chuck Bean. He noted it would also “have broad significance for the future of our region and its residents.” In other words, without action, the cost of housing will become unsustainable.
I took note of this report at the time, as did some local news outfits, and I discussed it with clients. I didn’t hear anything else about it for a couple of years, like a lost historical document, until recently when some local elected officials began to cite it as justification to encourage housing production. Three local jurisdictions—the District of Columbia, Maryland’s Montgomery County, and Virginia’s Fairfax County— have taken the lead on this initiative. Washington, D.C., mayor Muriel Bowser proposed 36,000 new housing units by 2025 as part of a larger regional effort. Noting the struggles in office real estate, D.C.’s planning office is exploring ways to incentivize the conversion of underutilized commercial buildings to residential use, and many such projects have already been approved. The District understands that this would help support retail and generate additional tax revenue for the city while also increasing desperately needed housing near transit and jobs.
More than a year after the report was released, the Montgomery County Council unanimously passed a resolution in support of MWCOG’s targets. The resolution also specifies the council’s commitment to contribute an additional 10,000 units beyond what is forecast in the county through 2030. According to developers, there have been some challenges putting this resolution into practice, but the county’s share of new-home starts in Maryland is 14%, which is up from less than 9% only two years ago (excluding apartments).
Official statements from Fairfax County focus on short- and medium-term strategies to preserve and produce affordable and workforce housing. Its goal is to produce a minimum of 5,000 new units that will be affordable to households earning 60% of the area median income over the next 15 years. While production builders are more focused on attainable and “missing middle” housing, they can get their rezonings approved by setting aside a certain percentage of units as affordable. This appears to be working as the county’s share of new-home starts in Northern Virginia is 16%, which is up from 9% three years ago (excluding apartments). Fairfax has recognized some areas are overdeveloped with commercial properties, and they are agreeable to rezoning these unused parcels to for-sale residential. This includes deals in Dulles International Airport’s outer flight paths that might not have been considered for residential previously due to noise concerns. Builders must meet certain construction sound-mitigation guidelines, and buyers must be notified of the flight corridor, but these communities are performing.
While some Mid-Atlantic jurisdictions have not gotten the memo and continue to oppose all types of residential development, most are now recognizing the great need for more housing in the region. This change in sentiment from local governments predates the pandemic that spawned a shift in renters’ attitudes regarding homeownership. The supercharged housing market has highlighted the extent of residential under development in the D.C. metro area. In turn, this has increased government resolve to develop more housing. Much more needs to be done, and while elected officials may not have immediately embraced the MWCOG report, at least it wasn’t wrapped up and stored away in a Texas office building for 35 years.