OAKLAND — Instead of celebrating her 18th birthday by happily blowing out blazing birthday candles with hopes of scoring expensive gifts, Jaleace Smith was wishing she could stay on probation.
For Smith, turning 18 meant she would no longer be able to stay in the juvenile transitional housing she had been in as a result of "misbehaving."
"I didn't have nowhere to go," she said. She was also pregnant.
Each year thousands of youths in the foster system become homeless after losing eligibility for state benefits when they turn 18.
But this year, Smith has a place to call home.
On Thursday, the Madison @ 14th Apartments held a grand opening celebration to unveil the multimillion dollar "green" complex specifically created for low-income families and "aged-out" foster youth such as Smith.
The project at 14th and Madison streets in downtown Oakland is a collaboration between Affordable Housing Associates and First Place for Youth, a nonprofit organization that provides services for foster youth.
"A dream was turned into a goal, and that dream actually came true," said Sam Cobbs, executive director of First Place for Youth.
The complex received funding from several sources, including the city of Oakland, Enterprise Community Partners and the Housing and Urban Development's Multifamily Housing Program.
Sean Rogan, deputy director of Housing and Community Development for the city of Oakland, said the Advertisement City Council gave $7 million to the project. Organizers also raised $23 million for the housing.
He said the best thing about the building is it doesn't look like affordable housing and "blends with the culture of downtown."
Rogan said all of the tenants make less than $43,000 per year.
Susan Friedland, executive director of Affordable Housing Associates, said Thursday's opening was a "party for (the residents) to celebrate their new home."
During a late-morning program in an open space on the eight-story building's second floor, Smith spoke about her time in the San Francisco juvenile system.
She said she had to worry about staying in school and meeting curfew. She said she was glad AHA and First Place for Youth had given her a "safe place for me and my son."
Cobbs said Smith has been working with First Place for Youth for eight months. "She's a very determined, self-motivated young woman who is an excellent mother and who is going to be and is a contributing member to our society," he said.
The day's program also included a rousing speech by Michael Phillips, 50, also a new resident of the building. He said he had been living in rough neighborhoods in Oakland. "I always wanted to get into something new and I got blessed," he said.
AHA received more than 3,000 applications to live in one of the building's 79 units, 20 of which were designated for foster youth. Most of the residents are from Oakland.
Phillip allowed visitors to tour his third-floor studio apartment, which was decorated with art and knickknacks from his travels around the world.
"What I have, I try to take care of," he said.
Visitors entered his kitchen, with a stove, full-size refrigerator and cabinets along the left wall. A white folding screen shielded his bed from view of the doorway.
Phillips said his rent is $734 per month, with $400 subsidized by Catholic charities. All residents are also responsible for paying their own electricity bill.
"If you're paying for your own power, you're going to be more efficient," said Eric Nyman, sales manager for Sun Light & Power, which installed more than 190 solar panels on the building's roof. He said the panels can generate 50,000 kilowatt hours each year, enough to power eight to 10 houses for a year.
The panels generate enough power for 50 percent of the energy load for the building's common areas, such as computer labs and elevators.
The labs are among some of the building's resources designed to help youth, in particular, for transition to life on their own. Cobbs said First Place for Youth also provides counseling and job training for youths, many of whom have mental health needs. He said foster youths typically aren't ready for life on their own at 18 because they were not allowed to do things like laundry and cooking in their group homes.
"No, they're not ready. How many of us were ready at age 18?" he said.
Phillips said he plans to stay in the building for as long as he can. Friedland said residents have no limit to their length of stay as long as they pay their rent each month.
"I'm very happy here," Phillips said.