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Guess Who's Spending Billions on Empty Buildings?

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) in July highlighted the “underutilization” of federal office space. The GAO “surveyed two dozen federal agencies and found they averaged a roughly 80% vacancy rate during the study period earlier this year. Not a single agency topped 50% use.”
For example, according to the GAO, “At the bottom, averaging just 9% capacity, were Agriculture, the Social Security Administration, the Office of Personnel Management, the Small Business Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and even the General Services Administration, which acts as the government’s chief landlord.”
How much are taxpayers spending to maintain or lease this empty space? “Federal agencies spend about $2 billion a year to operate and maintain federal office buildings regardless of the buildings’ utilization. In addition, agencies spend about $5 billion annually to lease office buildings,” explains the GAO.
While the pandemic and a growing trend to telecommute exacerbated the vacancy rates, empty federal office buildings have been a long-running problem. In a 2012 paper, the Congressional Research Service reported, “In FY2010—the most recent data available—the government held 77,700 buildings it identified as either not utilized or underutilized and spent $1.67 billion dollars operating and maintaining them.”
The spending waste was so blatant that even President Barack Obama tried to address the problem. First, he set up a “Freeze the Footprint” policy, which the White House claimed, “was the first government-wide policy that established and required federal agencies to identify offsets (i.e., disposals) of existing property to support new property acquisitions.”
Got that? No new property acquisitions without letting go of an equal amount of current property holdings.
Hey, isn’t that what House Republicans have been trying to do with respect to federal spending?
Obama also set up a council to look for ways to actually reduce federal property holdings, which the White House said was successful. “In FY 2014 alone, for all domestic-owned building types, the government disposed of 7,350 buildings, 47 million square feet of space, and eliminated $17 million of annual operation and maintenance cost.”
The Biden administration claims it is also shrinking the federal-building footprint. Even if that’s true, the feds have a long way to go. With a current average vacancy rate of 80 percent, it’s way past time for the government to downsize its real estate—and its budget.