The federal government is sitting on millions of square feet of unused office space.
That's the upshot of a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which found that even before the COVID-19 pandemic cleared out offices and introduced much of the country to remote work, "federal agencies have long struggled to determine how much office space they need to fulfill their missions."
"The federal government owns over 460 million square feet of office space that costs billions annually to operate and maintain," the report notes.
The GAO surveyed the 24 federal agencies that use most of the federal government's buildings; these included the Departments of State, Commerce, Justice, Transportation, Homeland Security, and Education, as well as agencies like the Social Security Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. Then, the GAO calculated the square footage of each agency's headquarters compared to its average in-person attendance during one week each in January, February, and March 2023.
The report found that, on average, 17 of the 24 agencies surveyed used 25 percent or less of the available space in their headquarters buildings. Even agencies on the higher end only averaged between 40 percent and 49 percent.
This problem is not unique to the federal government. Washington, D.C.'s WTOP News reported in July that 18.9 percent of office buildings in the nation's capital are empty, a record high. In the first quarter of 2023, the vacancy rate in New York City rose to 16.1 percent, signifying 76 million square feet of empty office space.
But the situation is obviously very different when the taxpayers are the ones footing the bill. The GAO report notes that the 24 agencies it surveyed "spend about $2 billion a year to operate and maintain owned federal office buildings." Owing to the sheer size and scope of the cost, some agencies put off maintenance and repairs. The GAO recommends "disposing of underutilized buildings in need of repair" as a cost-saving measure.
To make matters worse, even as agency headquarters are mostly empty, "federal agencies spend about $5 billion annually to lease office space from the private sector and from the federal government," accounting for over 83 million square feet of office space.
The GAO recommends that agencies reassess their respective needs, using "benchmarks…that account for greater levels of telework." It also notes that there is a "unique opportunity to reconsider the federal government's real property portfolio."
Getting rid of unused real estate could also have positive effects outside of federal balance sheets. "In the local economy, unneeded properties and land could be put to productive use," the report notes. "Selling a federal building to the private sector also can increase the local tax base, as federal buildings are generally exempt from local taxes."
Reason previously reported on an earlier version of the final report, related to data compiled by government watchdog organization OpenTheBooks.com, showing that government agencies spent more than $3.3 billion on office furniture since the beginning of the pandemic even as their buildings sat largely vacant.