A digital image of the Sixth Avenue Flats provided by Simonson and Associates Architects.

Calling it more than just another apartment building, officials broke ground Wednesday on a project that will provide safe housing for young adults after they age out of the foster care system.

The Sixth Avenue Flats development is about a block south of University Avenue on Sixth Avenue. It will be a collaboration between Ames-based YSS and Des Moines Area Community College and focus on safe, affordable housing, education and continued support for youths transitioning out of foster care.

The project will also include street-level retail space for budding entrepreneurs.

The $9.2 million project “will have national significance for the affordable housing projects across the country,” said Jack Hatch of Hatch Development Group LLC, one of the groups working on the project.

Young adults who age out of the foster care system through YSS will be able to live at Sixth Avenue Flats, and receive educational assistance to obtain training and associate degrees through Des Moines Area Community College while still receiving services through YSS, which will have an office on-site.

“That makes this project not just an apartment building, not just a home, not just a place that provides value to the neighborhood, but this really is a project that provides hope and opportunity to people who in the past have been quiet and silenced,” Hatch said.

It will consist of 13 one-bedroom apartments, 18 two-bedroom apartments and 11 three-bedroom apartments, allowing for a total of 82 tenants in the more than 41,000-square-foot building.

The affordable housing real estate investment firm WNC Inc., the Iowa Finance Authority, the Iowa Economic Development Authority, the city of Des Moines, the Polk County Housing Trust Fund, and Iowa Trust and Savings Bank have all worked to bring the project to reality, according to a news release.

Hatch said it will be one the first affordable housing projects of its type in the nation, and that it has leveraged federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits for homeless youths with YSS and its Des Moines operations, Iowa Homeless Youth Centers.

Young adults who live in the building will be able to attend DMACC through the state’s Foster Care Scholarship Program, established several years ago to provide free education to foster children.

The announcement comes 20 years after the death of Reggie Kelsey, a young man who died in 2001, 3½ months after he aged out of the state’s foster care system.

Kelsey suffered from hallucinations and depression, and after being kicked out of his foster care placement, he bounced from shelter to shelter and occasionally camped outside.

Andrew Allen, president and CEO of YSS, said the timing of Wednesday’s announcement with the anniversary of Kelsey’s death wasn’t going unnoticed.

“The big gap for us is both employment but more importantly … safe, affordable housing these kids can consistently rely on. And so this project, this does fill a huge gap,” Allen said.

He called the Sixth Avenue Flats project a “game changer.”

“We’ll create hope and opportunity in the lives of many transition-age youth who otherwise would be homeless or at risk for trafficking, or in jail, so this is a project that will create significant impact,” said Allen, an alumnus of YSS, which administers the Iowa Aftercare Services Network, a state-funded program that provides supportive services for those who age out of the foster care system. Its focus is safe housing, education, employment and life skills.

Allen said the Sixth Avenue Flats will help fulfill YSS’ mission.

“The youth who will be served by this project deserve safe and affordable housing because they want a home,” he said. “They deserve education support because they want to learn. They deserve employment support because they want to work, and they deserve physical and behavioral help because they want to live.”

Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, told the crowd who gathered in the excavated lot where the Sixth Avenue Flats will be built that housing is the first step toward success.

She said statistics show that 20% of foster youths will become homeless when they age out of the system and that they are less likely to graduate from high school or to receive any post-high school training or education.

“Youth who age out of the foster care system are left to navigate the transition of adulthood on their own, face significant barriers in securing housing and in reaching their full potential and goals,” Durham said. “If we focus on helping these youth access stable, affordable housing first, research shows increased levels of educational and academic achievement will follow.”

The project, a partnership among Hatch Development group, Kiernan Developing and Construction LLC, Simonson and Associates Architects LLP, and Koester Construction, is scheduled for completion in April 2022, Hatch said.

Hatch said another component of the project is a commercial element, which will be storefronts on the street level, allowing young entrepreneurs to live and work at the same place.

“We’ve done this in the East Village Square, we have 12 live-work lofts there and there’s a waiting list for them,” he said. “This is for adults who have a dream, who think they are ready to set out on their business but need a little extra security, so instead of having retail space where you’re paying money and a home where you’re paying money you combine the two and they live there, work there and sell from there.”

The Sixth Avenue Flats will include five two-bedroom lofts that will be rented to tenants, similar to the East Village Square development.

Hatch touted the uniqueness of the project.

“It’s really unusual to have a building operate on so many different levels,” he said.

Andrew Allen, president and CEO of YSS, speaks at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Sixth Avenue Flats project on Wednesday while Jack Hatch of Hatch Development Group LLC watches. Photo by Michael Crumb/Business Record.