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Richard F. Bellman, lawyer who fought housing bias; at 74

new york times/file 1984

Mr. Bellman worked for a series of antidiscrimination groups.

NEW YORK - Richard F. Bellman - a lawyer whose tenacity and legal ingenuity propelled him to victory in fights with local governments over racially discriminatory zoning, including in a landmark case against Mount Laurel, N.J., in 1975 - died April 18 on his way to work in Manhattan, where he also lived.

The cause was a heart attack, said his son, Jedd.

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Where others saw dry zoning ordinances, Mr. Bellman, 74, saw a battleground for classic civil rights campaigns as he fought for subsidized housing for the poor and members of minority groups in white suburbs. He persuaded the New Jersey Supreme Court to order the town of Mount Laurel to change its zoning to make possible the construction of low-income housing.

The ruling “set in motion the most fundamental redistribution of property rights ever attempted by a state government in the United States,’’ a 1990 article in Political Science Quarterly said. In New Jersey, it required every municipality to provide zoning for affordable housing.

Mr. Bellman was victorious in another class-action suit in 1988, when he convinced a federal appeals court that Huntington, on Long Island’s North Shore, had perpetuated segregation through its zoning ordinances. The US Supreme Court affirmed the ruling, which broadened the interpretation of federal fair housing laws by holding that, to win a judgment, a plaintiff need only demonstrate the fact of discrimination, not an intention to discriminate.

The towns Mr. Bellman fought argued that their zoning laws were appropriate because they helped preserve a style of life, kept school costs down, and promoted single-family homes. But as blacks and other minorities sought to follow whites to the suburbs - where life was perceived to be better and where more jobs were available - opponents saw the land-use restrictions as racist.

“Resistance to any kind of integrated housing in virtually all-white areas is endless and astounding,’’ Lewis M. Steel, Mr. Bellman’s law partner, said. “There are a thousand arguments, and they all sound similar.’’

Richard Frederick Bellman was born in Minneapolis. He graduated from the University of Minnesota, did graduate work in political science at the University of Chicago, and returned to the University of Minnesota to earn a law degree.

His first job was with the NAACP, for which he worked as assistant to Robert L. Carter, the general counsel. Starting in 1968, he worked for a succession of antidiscrimination organizations and was in private practice.

In addition to his son, Mr. Bellman leaves his wife, Barbara J. Beck.

Mr. Bellman argued zoning cases from a variety of perspectives, sometimes stressing law-and-order grounds, sometimes constitutional guarantees of equal rights, and sometimes fair housing legislation, Steel said.

“He would never give up,’’ he said. “He would always try to figure out: ‘OK, what do you do now? How do you go at this a different way?’ ’’

In the Mount Laurel case, he convinced the court that under the due process and equal protection clauses in the state Constitution, municipalities could not use zoning to exclude the poor.

Similar arguments did not work in the case of Brookhaven, also on Long Island. Mr. Bellman lost lawsuits in 1987 and 1992 in which he argued that Brookhaven had used zoning policy to illegally exclude low-income people. He had hoped the class actions would establish a precedent for New York State similar to what the Mount Laurel case had done for New Jersey.

Mr. Bellman also took the occasional criminal case. In 1985, he represented Willie Jones, who was charged with evading a subway fare, then imprisoned for three months to await trial in an unrelated robbery case based on fingerprint analysis, which was bungled. A different man named Willie Jones was wanted. After Mr. Bellman helped Jones win his freedom, the man promptly became Willie D. Jones, even though he actually had no middle name.

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