Oh, to be a landlord to federal agencies!

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Young people looking for a place to live are most likely to rent an apartment, rather than to buy a house. That’s because they lack the money needed for a down payment and other costs associated with upkeep and improvements. In time, they may earn more and save enough money to purchase a home and begin building equity. The poor are often trapped in leases for life, eventually – for lack of ready cash – spending much more than it might have cost to buy a decent home and at the end having not so much as a door knob to show for it.


Bloated and free-spending as United States government agencies may seem, many of them find themselves in the same situation as the young and the poor when it comes to purchasing property. And that’s why the federal government is spending $4.2 billion of our tax dollars every year to rent office space, even though it owns as many as 77,000 buildings that are empty or underused.


On National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” program Wednesday, Laura Sullivan reported that the Government Accountability Office is looking into poor management and waste, which, apparently, are not too hard to find. The Department of Commerce, for example, pays $60 million a year in rent for a building in Alexandria, Va. The Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle is renewing a lease that will keep it in its building for the next 50 years.


Sullivan reported that heads of agencies defend leasing as a way to avoid the high costs of maintenance and for its flexibility, allowing them to grow, shrink or move. But many agencies are spending big money to renovate buildings they don’t even own, like the State Department, which spent $80 million refurbishing office space for a lease that expires in five years.


The NPR report quoted Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, who sits on the Committee on Government Oversight and Reform. “When you see these departments and agencies leasing a building and then investing millions and millions of dollars to retrofit them to their specific needs, it just sort of drives you nuts,” Chaffetz said.


Why, we ask, do federal agencies lease high-priced private property when the government owns thousands of empty buildings they could move into rent-free? Location might be the answer, but a poor excuse. This is, after all, 2014, and innovations in communication have made it possible to conduct business – government or otherwise – from anywhere. An employee in the Commerce Department, for example, no longer needs to copy documents by hand, load them into a horse-drawn carriage and cart them to Capitol Hill. He can duplicate the digital files and email them from Abilene or Albuquerque as easily as from Alexandria.


Chaffetz told NPR that the General Services Administration has been unable to account for all the buildings the U.S. government owns, but it is working on it.


We sure hope so.


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