In Los Angeles County’s ongoing struggle to find housing and services for its tens of thousands of homeless residents, decision makers have begun thinking outside the box.

One new idea, which was presented to the LA County Mental Health Commission in January, suggests sheltering people on the underutilized roofs of parking structures dotted around greater Los Angeles.

“People don’t want to drive up to the top floor. They don’t want to spend the time to do that … and your car gets dirty on the top floor,” Paul Jenkins of the Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council told the Commission, adding, “In construction, in multifamily, the top floor is actually the rooftop amenity. It’s actually one of the nicest parts of the building.”

Jenkins, who has a background in construction management, said he and his team had studied city- and county-owned parking structures, many of which had nearly empty roofs. To Jenkins, that space was a creative solution to create temporary housing for homeless Angelenos.

Jenkins and his team used data prepared by real estate company CBRE: — “a brief dossier of data relating to L.A. County owned parking structures” — with numerical estimates. The study was dated late July 2021.

“So, the way they look at it is based on a concept of found land, which is underutilized county-owned parking structures with vacant- or near-vacant rooftops during peak hours,” Jenkins said. “The advantage of being above street level is [it’s] secure and protected and you can control the access points very easily.” Jenkins also added that most parking structures are already plumbed and all are wired for electricity — ”You might just have to add a few things.”

CBRE identified 22 county-owned parking structures making up 1.4 million square feet of available rooftop space, plus 25 city or state owned structures with a little more than a million square feet of usable space, Jenkins said, adding he hoped the concept could be picked up by private garages as well.

“They [private garages] have a lot of vacancies,” he said. “They could use the extra income of leasing out their top floor [or] top two floors to the County for this issue, and this is a way you can really get a lot of people off the street very quickly.”

Speed of implementation and a comparably lower price point were key factors for both Jenkins and the Commission members who spoke during the meeting — although there were concerns about focusing too much on temporary housing when many agree that a lack of available permanent housing was a high priority for the County.

“The construction costs — targeting to the entire community, including needed amenities and the needed support offices — is like $60-75,000 per bed,” Jenkins said.

Commissioner Stacy Dalgleish, representing the County’s Third District including Santa Monica, said that compared favorably to other suggestions that came in at 10 times the cost. Dalgleish said she shared an earlier version of the proposal with some Santa Monica residents and community leaders, eliciting a positive response.

“I was pleasantly surprised to see that I got immediate responses from people, and I think that one of the reasons is because this is such a pressing issue that everyone is trying to work on it and figure out ways that we can do something, and do something quickly, and not at the 500, 600, $700,000-a unit [price], for something that we’re using primarily as interim housing in your concept,” Dalgleish said.

Commissioner Kevin Acebo raised some concerns about funding and loss of funds to parking structures, but said he would be in support of a pilot study to test the concept.

“I think it’s worthwhile, because I think this modular housing is a way to really increase the kind of unit we need right now,” Acebo said, later adding, “We have to think outside the box.”

Acebo went on to say the largest factor in housing costs was the high price of real estate. Acebo suggested perhaps using the Department of Mental Health’s own parking lot to pilot the program.

Materials provided by the Commission identified Santa Monica’s embattled Parking Structure 3 as a potential site for rooftop housing; however, the structure is slated for demolition on Feb. 14 if an appellate court does not issue a stay.

No formal decision was made at the meeting.