Let’s get real about real estate

The federal government can’t manage its real estate. And Congress is no help.

To wit:

  • The Veterans Affairs Department owns more than 6,000 buildings and rents another 1,500. It has more square-footage than 28 Pentagons. Secretary David Shulkin says his staff has found 430 completely vacant buildings and 735 partially vacant ones. Congress wants a full accounting, and not for the first time.
  • Defense officials have been trying in vain for years to convince Congress they have more real estate than they need — and that it costs maybe $2 billion extra a year to maintain. Congress has been saying no for a decade.
  • FBI, Labor, and Homeland Security — stop me if you’ve heard this — all need new headquarters space. All have initiatives to get it. All three initiatives have slid into limbo. I’ll get to this in another column.

In some ways, the buildings glut parallels the data center issue. Agencies are adept at adding, but slow to eliminate the obsolete. Like data centers, whole buildings do become obsolete to the point where rehab costs dictate starting over with new.

Obsolescence is one thing. Sheer neglect is another. Earlier this year, the DoD’s Facility Condition Index shows one in five buildings ending in failing condition. DoD officials say they never get enough money to do all of their required yearly maintenance.

As the VA Commission on Care and others have noted, the average age of a VA hospital is 60. At some point, you can’t retrofit them anymore for the needs of contemporary medicine. But no inert thing like a building can overcome carelessness. At the troubled New Hampshire VA hospital, its administrators purchased a million-dollar nuclear medicine camera that ended up too big to fit into the examining room. Hey, guys, there’s another medical instrument we need to tell you about: a tape measure.

VA and DoD’s situations aren’t quite parallel. The DoD force structure has been shrinking since the 1990s. Armed Services bosses have said they just don’t need the space they have. For VA, the patterns of where veterans live keep shifting. That creates a mismatch between capacity and demand, region by region. Both departments have maintenance problems with the buildings they want. And they have lots of odd structures they keep on the books out of habit or for legal reasons. Tool sheds, garages, dormitories, warehouses, empty hangars — somewhere I’ll bet there’s an outhouse or two.

Both departments should get authority from Congress to tear down or sell empty, non-mission shanties. Require a complete database with the location, size, condition, former use and pictures. Put out a proposed wrecking-ball rule and let people comment, if there’s some concern. You really can’t sell off a structure for alternative use if it’s located within a federal compound. But maybe someone would pay to move it out.

After that, it gets tougher. Members are loath to rob a district of an employment site. That’s why Congress developed the BRAC process, to save itself from itself.  But if it doesn’t allow a BRAC, it allows continued inefficiency. VA tried a commission to close and reallocate space more than 15 years ago, and that didn’t make a fundamental change either. When it wanted a new hospital outside Denver, the project snowballed until the cost overruns prompted Congress to hand the job of finishing it to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Now Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) propose a re-rescue. Their National Defense Authorization Bill amendment would have members conduct a BRAC (not until 2021) without the commission. Congress would make its own decisions on what to close.

Good luck with that.

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