These days, Debra Hall seems to get the same call every week. The people change, but the budget doesn’t. Neither does her inevitable response.
“They have a job lined up, and $500 or $600 a month to spend on rent, and I have to tell them it’s not in the realm of reality,” said Hall, who owns Hallmark Idaho Properties in Hailey. “I have to tell them it costs twice that. I break their hearts on the phone.”
For the Bellevue resident, affordable housing is the reason she’s running as an independent candidate for the District 1 seat on the Blaine County commission. Plain and simple; as a real estate agent who sees the crunch firsthand, there’s no second answer.
“Housing is our No. 1 issue,” she said. “Look around town, there are help wanted signs everywhere. We have entry level jobs—jobs that should be easy to fill—and we can’t fill them. Why not? Because young people can’t find a place to live.
“If we keep losing young people, eventually we’ll have a bunch of 80-year-old millionaires and no one to serve them in restaurants.”
Hall was 13 when her family sold seven wooded acres in southern Missouri and moved to the Wood River Valley. She graduated from Wood River High School, where she was a cheerleader, and, for the past 28 years she’s worked in real estate. She headed the Hailey chamber of commerce from 2013 to 2015, and twice served as president of the Sun Valley Board of Realtors, in 2011 and 2017. After several years of encouragement from that board, the 56-year-old decided to make her first run at elected office—without a political party next to her name.
“There are things I agree on with both parties, and there are things I disagree with,” she said. “But mostly, I’m just so tired of the childish behavior on both sides.”
As an independent, Hall says she leans more to the right than the left. She doesn’t believe the government should have a hand directly in the market. Her approach to affordable housing focuses on revising zoning ordinances, incentivizing development and working to find and finance private projects.
“It’s not the county’s job to build houses, or to be a landlord,” she said. “But if the county owns the land, it can facilitate a project. It can help find funding. It can do enough to incentivize someone who has a little bit of money, someone who doesn’t mind being a landlord, to take responsibility.”
The price, then, depends on what the buyer is willing to pay—not on deed restrictions and price requirements, like the county currently has in place in some areas.
“It’s not the commissioners’ role to take over for the market,” Hall said.
And, though she would like to see development close to towns, she says it’s not the board’s role to tell people what and where to build, either.
“You don’t want to say, ‘That’s where this goes,’” she said. “You have to have a mix. It’s not everyone’s dream to own a home. We need rentals, too. We need different densities. That’s where the NIMBYs come in.”
In conversation, Hall retains some of her ex-cheerleader effervescence, but she reserves her edge for those not-in-my-backyard neighbors, and their ability to dictate how landowners can and cannot use their property. Though changes to code could limit that influence, it first takes a change in attitude, Hall said.
“What happened to ‘Love thy neighbor?” Hall asked. “I think we need to remember that. There’s this feeling that you get here and then you shut the gate. We can’t do that.”
Hall isn’t convinced today’s high values will last. That said, she doesn’t think “smart, controlled growth” will be the thing that drives them down. Instead, bolstering the labor force could buttress the economy, if and when hard times eventually come.
“We need our worker bees,” she said. “They want to be here, they want their kids in school here and they don’t want to be commuting in from Twin Falls. Think of all the money we lose, every time they leave.
“People get tired of the battle, but when it comes to housing, we can’t afford to. Everything I do, I dress up and I show up. I immerse myself into it. And I get things accomplished.”