The Department of Veterans Affairs is spending tens of millions of taxpayer dollars every year to maintain hundreds of buildings – most of them vacant – that have fallen into such a state of disrepair that many of them are considered health hazards, an investigation by FoxNews.com reveals.
Exactly how much it costs to maintain the run-down and abandoned buildings is a matter of dispute. The Government Accountability Office estimates that the VA has spent $175 million every year since 2007. But the VA disputes that figure, saying it spent $85 million on the buildings in 2007 and only $37 million last year.
Whatever the figure, the timing couldn't be worse for the VA, as tens of thousands of American troops, many of whom have served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, prepare to return to the U.S. and will require the expensive medical, psychological and support services it provides.
From Augusta, Ga., to Menlo Park, Calif., from Milwaukee, Wis., to Perry Point, Md., the VA maintains 5,507 buildings across the country. But as many as 314 of them are currently vacant — and they require huge outlays of money just to remain standing.
Some veterans' advocates have called for the structures to be renovated or razed and rebuilt to provide housing for homeless veterans — but demolishing them or making them habitable could cost even more money, because many of the buildings contain hazardous materials.
Others say the government should sell these buildings to developers or non-profits that can make use of the facilities. But the VA is restricted by complex federal property and historical building guidelines and sanctioned share lease agreement programs that require outside organizations to come up with big bucks — no small feat for cash-strapped municipalities and non-profits in the midst of a recession.
And some of these buildings are just too old or too bizarre — anyone looking for a 325-square-foot pink, octagonal monkey house in Dayton, Ohio? — to drum up interest.
A FoxNews.com investigation has uncovered scores of these decrepit or abandoned buildings across the country that are home to rats, vermin, bird's nests, septic rainwater, exposed asbestos, lead paint, wall-to-wall fungal growth, mold, radon, fiberglass insulation, old clothes, spare tires, barrels of unidentified chemicals and even abandoned children’s dolls, according to documents and first-hand observations.
On Wednesday, the VA released this statement:
"VA places its highest priority on the delivery of quality healthcare services and benefits to Veterans and their families. The Department is also called to ensure the safety and security for our Veterans, Employees and those who visit our facilities. That why VA continues to work on meeting the President’s directive to reduce our inventory of unneeded buildings or convert their use to meet our key mission objectives, like ending Veteran homelessness. Over the past three years VA has disposed of 266 vacant or underused buildings consisting of over 2.6 million ground square feet and close to 200 acres of land and plans to dispose of 6.9 million ground square feet over the next five years."
The VA owns a total of 145.6 million gross square feet, of which 6.6 million gross square feet are vacant. Add another 4 million gross square feet of underutilized space — areas that are occupied but not utilized most effectively — and 7 percent of VA property is wasting both space and money.
In 2007, according to a GAO report the following year, the VA spent $175 million annually to maintain vacant or underutilized buildings. The report noted that 5 percent of VA buildings were vacant — the same percentage of vacancy reported this year.
GAO officials told FoxNews.com that they believe the VA is still spending that same amount — $175 million a year — on vacant or underutilized buildings.
But the VA disputes the GAO's calculations, saying it spent only $85 million in 2007 and spent only $37 million last year. (The VA's current calculations are based on a national average of $2 per square foot of vacant space; GAO's calculations take into account the specific costs associated with particular buildings and uses regional averages. GAO also says the VA underreported costs and excluded property, maintenance and operational expenses.)
Meanwhile, advocates for homeless veterans are urging the VA to find some way to utilize these structures to provide health and psychological services to veterans across the country — and to prepare for the thousands more who will return home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
"You got dormant buildings? You want to give them away? Refurbish them! Use them!" said Larry Van Kurant, spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars who is against VA’s divestment of property.
Bob Young, who served on President Bush’s advisory council for historic preservation and has testified before VA committees on adaptive reuse of historic properties, acknowledged that the “VA does not have enough housing for the veterans it treats.”
But, he said, “VA has limited funds and it must weigh the balance between spending money on patient care and infrastructure. If constructing a new building or leasing a building is less expensive than rehabilitating a historic structure, it’s easy to see why the historic building option would not be the choice to make.”
“It’s all about the money,” he said.
VA spokesman Drew Brookie gave FoxNews.com this statement:
“VA places its highest priority on the delivery of quality services and benefits to veterans and their families — first and foremost. Demolishing unneeded buildings is often costly and requires the careful balancing of priorities for resources, especially since our department’s mission is to care — often 24 hours a day, 7 days a week — for our nation’s veterans.”
“VA understands the importance and implications associated with an inventory of vacant and underutilized buildings. VA has been and continues to actively work on reducing its inventory of unneeded facilities.”
Many of the vacant VA buildings FoxNews.com visited have been declared health hazards, documents show.
— An environmental site report prepared by Brilliant Lewis Environmental Services at the VA campus in Montrose, N.Y. found a risk of lead and radon contamination in the local drinking water supply; contamination also was suspected from lead-based pipes lining the water towers. Reports from VA sites elsewhere in the country suggest radon and lead seepage may have contaminated potable water supplies at health care facilities or in surrounding areas.
— Outside Chicago, at the Edward Hines Jr. VA Medical Center, the basement of a 58,000-square-foot former nurses' residence is flooded with chemical-laden water. The VA spends an estimated $20,000 a year to maintain this building, which has been empty for at least 15 years. Demolition must be approved by the state historic agency and will cost $500,000; hazmat removal costs $426,000.
— In Menlo Park, Calif., FoxNews.com found Building 301, a 15,200-square-foot structure built in 1929, formerly outleased to Stanford University. It was slated for demolition in 2001 but is still standing, albeit barely, and is filled with garbage and old clothes. The state historic agency must approve demolition.
— At the Sepulveda branch of the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center, two former treatment buildings not used for patients since 1999 have been leased to a nonprofit with plans to build 147 temporary homeless residences. The 2010 taxpayer cost, records show, is $48 million. But construction is on hold while funding is sought.
— In Augusta, Ga., FoxNews.com found two boarded-up buildings at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center, where property surveyors found 300 gallons of hazardous materials and antiseptic cleaners — some dangerously close to active electrical fuses, records say. The VA spends about $12,000 a year on both buildings.
But the Augusta buildings are success stories. A nonprofit has plans to turn them into housing facilities. At the end of 2009, the VA says, similar projects provided 1,015 beds for homeless veterans by leasing vacant VA buildings across the country to outside groups who turned the buildings into housing.
The VA concedes it has mismanaged historical properties and just awarded a $2.5 million contract to companies who will help it stop wasting millions on vacant buildings—and use that money elsewhere.
Mark Walker, deputy director of the American Legion's economic division and an advocate for facilities to house homeless vets, has a few ideas on what to do with the money the VA will save. “We could really do a lot with that $175 million,” he said.
Additional reporting by Katie Landan, Lauren Miller, R. Byrne Reilly, Kelli Morgan and Katherine Meduski.