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Wed March 12, 2014

Government's Empty Buildings Are Costing Taxpayers Billions

Originally published on Thu March 13, 2014 11:07 am

On a street corner in downtown Washington, D.C., David Wise is opening a century-old iron gate in front of an old, boarded-up brick building.

Wise is an investigator for the Government Accountability Office, the government's watchdog group. His mission is to figure out why the government owns so many buildings, like this one, that it doesn't use.

The 132-year-old brick structure is sitting on prime real estate six blocks from the White House. It was once a school, but it's been vacant for almost three decades.

"All the walls are peeled, there's collapsed ceilings, there's moisture problems. It runs pretty much the gamut," Wise says.

Government estimates suggest there may be 77,000 empty or underutilized buildings across the country. Taxpayers own them, and even vacant, they're expensive. The Office of Management and Budget says these buildings could be costing taxpayers $1.7 billion a year.

That's because someone has to mow the lawns, keep the pipes from freezing, maintain security fences, pay for some basic power — even when the buildings are just sitting empty.

"To see a building that's 28,000 square feet, just boarded up three stories — it's really a shame not to have it ... put to a use that would be of benefit to taxpayers and citizens as a whole," Wise says.

An Unreliable List

But doing something with these buildings is a complicated job, partly because the federal government does not know what it owns.

Wise and his colleagues have been using the only known centralized database that the government has, the Federal Real Property Profile, and it's not reliable, he says.

"We'd see a building that maybe looked something like this, and the data would say it was 100 percent utilized, and we'd look around and see nobody," he says. "We'd go to other buildings, and [the list would] say it was unutilized, and we'd find that the building was overcrowded."

Some buildings listed as being in great shape had trees growing through the roofs. And many buildings weren't even on the list.

Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat from Delaware, is one of the lawmakers pushing to get a clearer picture.

"We don't know how many properties we have, we don't know which ones we own, which ones are leased," he says. "We don't know whether we ought to be building or buying instead of leasing."

But Carper says that even when an agency knows it has a building it would like to sell, bureaucratic hurdles limit what it can do. No federal agency can sell anything unless it's uncontaminated, asbestos-free and environmentally safe. Those are expensive fixes.

Then the agency has to make sure another one doesn't want it. Then state and local governments get a crack at it, then nonprofits — and finally, a 25-year-old law requires the government to see whether it could be used as a homeless shelter.

Many agencies just lock the doors and say forget it.

Carper has introduced legislation to streamline the process. "We know what we're doing right now doesn't work," he says.

Saving Space

A panel made up of the Office of Management and Budget and other agencies is trying to tackle the problem. But the keeper of the property database is the General Services Administration.

Dan Tangherlini inherited it when he took over as GSA administrator two years ago. Tangherlini says he wants to see an accurate list so agencies don't wind up leasing space when they could use an empty government office somewhere.

"We're not arguing that the data can't be better and [that] it shouldn't be better. In fact, we're working really hard to make it better," he says. "But we're really interested in making it useful."

He also wants to know which agencies can shrink their workspace, like the GSA did. Tangherlini's predecessors had a 1,600-square-foot office with floor-to-ceiling carved walnut paneling and silver-plated chandeliers. Tangherlini turned it into a common area that any employee can use. His office is now a large room with 50 GSA officials sitting at desks.

The downsizing was part of his agency's consolidation plan to get rid of old office buildings and save $24 million, he says.

"I think that people would have detected the cognitive dissonance if I had been sitting in that office, telling them how they have to save money by saving space," he says.

Tangherlini says space-sharing is the future for government agencies. They just have to figure out where all the space is — and whether or not it's empty.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're going to stick with the idea of process in the federal government. When you think of bureaucracy, getting something done efficiently doesn't necessarily come to mind. And here's one problem where that rings true. The government is sitting on thousands of unused empty buildings. One report found it's costing taxpayers $1.7 billion a year in upkeep.

It's hard to get a handle on this problem because no one knows for sure just what the federal government owns. NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: On a downtown street corner of Washington, D.C., there's an old brick building with boarded up windows behind a century-old black iron gate. It's prime real estate, six blocks from the White House, but it's been a long time since anyone's been inside.

DAVID WISE: It's real dusty in here so just watch your clothes and stuff.

SULLIVAN: Dave Wise is an investigator with the watchdog group, the Government Accountability Office. His mission is to figure out why the government has so many buildings, like this one, that it doesn't use.

WISE: All the walls are peeled, there's collapsed ceilings, there's moisture problems. It runs pretty much the gamut.

SULLIVAN: This 132-year-old building was once a school. It's been vacant for almost three decades. Taxpayers own it. Government estimates suggest there may be 77,000 of these empty or underutilized buildings all across the country. Even vacant, they're expensive. The Office of Management and Budget believes these buildings could be costing taxpayers over a billion and a half dollars a year.

You've got to mow the lawns, keep the pipes from freezing, maintain security fences, pay for some basic power. Plus, Wise says, it's just sitting here empty.

WISE: To see a building that's 28,000 square feet just boarded up three stories, it's really a shame not to have it used and put to, you know, a use that would be of benefit to taxpayers and citizens as a whole.

SULLIVAN: But doing something with this building and all the others is apparently harder than you'd think. In the first place, it turns out the federal government does not know what it owns. Wise and his colleagues have been using the only known list that the government has.

WISE: The database that the government maintains for his is, let's say, a little unreliable.

SULLIVAN: How unreliable?

WISE: We see a building that maybe looked something like this, and the data would say it was 100 percent utilized, and we'd look around and we'd see nobody. And we'd go to other buildings and we'd say it was unutilized, and we'd find that the building was overcrowded.

SULLIVAN: Some buildings listed in great shape had trees growing through the roofs. And many buildings weren't even on the list. Senator Tom Carper is a Democrat from Delaware.

SENATOR TOM CARPER: We don't know how many properties we have, we don't know which ones we own, which ones are leased. We don't know whether we ought to be building or buying instead of leasing.

SULLIVAN: Carper and other lawmakers have been pushing to get a clear picture of what's out there. But Carper says even when an agency knows it's got a building it would like to get rid of, there are huge bureaucratic hurdles. No federal agency can sell anything unless it's uncontaminated, asbestos-free and environmentally safe. That's expensive.

Then they have to make sure another agency doesn't want it. Then state and local governments get a crack at it, then nonprofits, and finally a 25-year-old law requires the government to see if it could be used as a homeless shelter. Many agencies just lock the doors and say forget it. Senator Carper has introduced legislation to streamline the process.

CARPER: We know what we're doing right now doesn't work.

SULLIVAN: There's also a panel made up of agencies trying to tackle the problem, the Office of Management and Budget and others. But the keeper of the list, the property database, is the General Services Administration. Dan Tangherlini inherited it when he took over as GSA administrator two years ago.

DAN TANGHERLINI: We're not arguing that the data can't be better and it shouldn't be better. In fact, we're working really hard to make it better. But we're really interested in making it useful.

SULLIVAN: Tangherlini says he wants to see an accurate list so agencies don't wind up leasing space when there might be an empty government office somewhere. And he wants to know which agencies can shrink their workspace, like he did.

TANGHERLINI: So where you are right now is the administrator's office. Now...

SULLIVAN: That's you. That's your office.

TANGHERLINI: Right. That's my office.

SULLIVAN: His office is actually a large room with 50 GSA officials at desks. This is part of his agency's consolidation plan to get rid of old office buildings and save $24 million. This is your cubicle?

TANGHERLINI: This is me right here. I've resisted the term cubicle because it's more of my workspace.

SULLIVAN: His predecessors saw it differently.

TANGHERLINI: This is the historic administrator's office. I should really say suite.

SULLIVAN: Sixteen hundred square feet of floor-to-ceiling carved walnut, with silver-plated chandeliers. Tangherlini's made it a public space any employee can use.

TANGHERLINI: I think that people would have detected the cognitive dissonance if I had been sitting in that office telling them how they have to save money by saving space.

SULLIVAN: Tangherlini says space-sharing is the future for government agencies. They just have to figure out where all the space is and whether or not it's empty.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.