Because North Carolina is one of the seven states likely to determine the outcome of the 2024 presidential election, and also boasts highly competitive contests for governor and other statewide offices, local races may not be top-of-mind for most voters. Nevertheless, North Carolinians will elect hundreds of county and municipal officials this year — which essentially puts the issue of adequate, affordable housing on the ballot.

Unlike most of the issues featured in federal and statewide campaigns, housing policy doesn’t generate predictably partisan debates. As I’ve observed in previous columns, you’ll find both Democrats and Republicans who favor zoning reforms and other policies that facilitate higher-density development. You’ll also find both Democrats and Republicans who oppose these reforms, expressing concerns about traffic, property values, and quality of life.

On housing costs, North Carolina is doing better than most places. Last year, US News ranked our state 17th in affordability, and recent upsurges in new construction have helped moderate or even reverse increases in average rents. Chuck McShane, director of market analytics for the real-estate research firm CoStar, reports that Charlotte’s projected 13.2% increase in multifamily units this year will be the largest of all major markets, making up 29.3% of all new housing inventory. Raleigh is also near the top of the list, with multifamily making up 12.5% of inventory.

Nevertheless, for many new and not-at-all-new North Carolinians, finding an affordable place to live remains a challenge. Local officials have a major role to play in addressing this challenge, as do state lawmakers. They need to make it easier to build and sell a variety of housing options. That will, in turn, require a realistic and persuasive strategy for engaging folks who view these options with great skepticism.

Tobias Peter, who codirects the American Enterprise Institute’s Housing Center, has spent years developing such a strategy. He calls its Light Touch Density (LTD), defined as “moderately greater density in areas zoned exclusively for single-family detached homes.” As Peter argued in a recent presentation, the strategy’s policy applications depend on the particularities of a given market.

In existing neighborhoods where home prices are already high, for example, a reasonable LTD policy would be to allow property owners to replace a single unit with a complex of between two and eight units. In the medium-cost neighborhoods that constitute most of the housing stock in North Carolina’s metropolitan areas, Peter recommends allowing property owners to add units to the existing home, whether they be attached or detached.

Other LTD reforms can be adopted across entire jurisdictions, including states. One would be a process for pre-approving design standards for accessory dwelling units. Another is a “shot clock” — a time limit on the permitting process so that if regulators act too slowly, applicants receive full or partial approval when the clock runs out.

Even such “light touches” have opponents, of course. Peter advises housing advocates to engage them, gain a better understanding of their concerns, and respond in ways that reflect that understanding. To left-leaning residents, emphasize how higher-density infill will foster walkable communities and disrupt the vestiges of past discrimination. To right-leaning residents, emphasize LTD’s respect for property rights and use of private rather than taxpayer dollars to ameliorate the housing crunch.

As for those who don’t really view the housing issue (at least) through an ideological lens, Peter argues that his light-touch strategy “offers gradual change and avoids unintended consequences.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher. University of Iowa professor Jerry Anthony has researched how housing issues interact with the broader economic health of American communities. In a study of the country’s 100 most-populous metros, Anthony found that “decreases in housing affordability had a statistically significant negative effect on economic growth.” Though pro-housing policies have often been “seen as a social imperative,” he concluded that they “may well be an economic imperative also.”

North Carolina needs to get this right — and North Carolina voters need to hear more about it during this year’s elections.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history.